The Last of the Great Books: The Problems of Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell; The Nature of Life, by Conrad H. Waddington; Structural Anthropology, by Claude Levi-Strauss; The Waste Land , by TS Eliot
We shall find it convenient only to speak of things existing when they are in time, that is to say, when we can point to some time at which they exist (not excluding the possibility of their existing at all times). Thus thoughts and feelings, minds and physical objects exist. But universals do not exist in this sense; we shall say that they subsist or have being, where 'being' is opposed to 'existence' as being timeless. The world of universals, therefore, may also be described as the world of being. The world of being is unchangeable, rigid, exact, delightful to the mathematician, the logician, the builder of metaphysical systems, and all who love perfection more than life. The world of existence is fleeting, vague, without sharp boundaries, without any clear plan or arrangement, but it contains all thoughts and feelings, all the data of sense, and all physical objects, everything that can do either good or harm, everything that makes any difference to the value of life and the world. According to our temperaments, we shall prefer the contemplation of the one or of the other. The one we do not prefer will probably seem to us a pale shadow of the one we prefer, and hardly worthy to be regarded as in any sense real. But the truth is that both have the same claim on our impartial attention, both are real, and both are important to the metaphysician. Indeed no sooner have we distinguished the two worlds than it becomes necessary to consider their relations.
In the past we have, only too often, taken the attitude of a simple band of robbers, concerned only to get as much out of our surroundings as quickly as possible, with no thought of setting up a system capable of long-term operation. Perhaps the most practical effect that the natural philosophy of biology could have at the present time would be to show mankind a more scientific way of looking at his situation as an inhabitant of the world's surface.
The question then becomes that of ascertaining what kind of model deserves the name "structure"....First, the structure exhibits the characteristics of a system. It is made up of several elements, none of which can undergo a change without effecting changes in all other elements....Second, for any given model there should be a possibility of ordering a series of transformations resulting in a group of models of the same type....Third, the above properties make it possible to predict how the model will react if one or more of its elements are submitted to certain modifications...Finally, the model should be construed so as to make immediately intelligible all the observed facts.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
What a long, strange trip it's been. In January, 2011, I began a decade-long project of reading the Great Books of the Western World (as well as the Harvard Classics, and many other assorted "great" works through history.
In December, 2020, I finished the project, with these four books.
Heidegger and Wittgenstein officially come after Bertrand Russell, but I saved Russell for last on purpose. Russell is that rare treasure: a philosopher who is not only enlightening but fun to read. He makes thinking look easy where so many others go out of their way to make comprehending them as difficult as possible.
The Problems of Philosophy is almost entirely a work of epistemology and how we can be certain that we know any given truth. In a world where we have authoritarians openly substituting their own assertions of dominance (alternative facts, truthiness) for reality and claiming power as the only basis for truth, it is more important than ever to have a grasp of why we accept what we know to be real. Therefore, Russell's century-old book is quite topical indeed. Very highly recommended.
Levi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology is the last of the Social Science works in the set, and it tries hard to emphasize the "science" aspect of anthropology. Levi-Strauss's work attempted to assert common denominators in all cultures, extrapolating beliefs and priorities from such things as village layouts and common factors in myths. Like several of the later "great books", it reads like a college textbook.
More than half of the works in the 20th century science volume are tracts where the chapters are derived from a set of lectures previously given by the author. Waddington's "The Nature Of Life", which, published in 1961 makes it the most recent book in the set, is one of those. It follows nicely from the earlier Darwinand Dobzhanski works, by setting out basic cell structure and inheritance of genetic traits, and segueing into a discussion of evolution and the philosophy of humanity's place and importance in an infinite universe.
The Great Books set includes several book-length poems and some shorter poems that appear as part of the complete works of Virgil, Shakespeare and Milton. TS Eliot's "The Waste Land" is the only short poem in the whole set that is included separately, as its own work, and Adler assets in the introductory volume that it is a culmination of the entire Western Canon.
And so I saved it for the last work of the decade, reading it on New Year's Eve with a sense of bidding farewell to a long-term companion. And was disappointed.
In case the title didn't tip you off, it is extremely dreary, dripping with post-WWI angst and despair, and it doesn't so much drop cultural references as back them up in a truck and dump them, untranslated both in the poem and in its five page set of footnotes. Which is probably why Mortimer Adler loved it so much. Not only do we get throwbacks to Dante and Milton and Frazier, but also to such universally known referents as Middleton's restoration-era play Women Beware Women and the philosopher F.H. Bradley. It is excessively learned in some parts, and willfully ignorant in others, such as where Eliot includes a long section of tarot reading, partially quoted above, but admits in a footnote that he is unfamiliar with the tarot and just made up a bunch of the cards.
As usual when I find myself panning a highly regarded classic, I assume the fault may be with my philistinish ignorance and invite any fans of TS Eliot who may be reading, to comment and tell me what I'm missing.
And....that's it for the Great Books, I guess. More than 2500 years of literature, history, science, philosophy and miscellaneous, from 2011 through 2020 and from 800 BC to roughly the end of WWI and beyond. I could easily spend the next decade grazing in the Great Books of the 20th/early 21st Centuries, and do a much less thorough job than I did with all of the preceding history. But not making any promises yet.
Swordfighting Goth Lesbian Necromancers IN SPACE!: Gideon IX, by Tamsyn Muir
Next to the drifts of dirt and stone that she had carefully kicked apart, skeletons burst out of the hard earth where they had hastily been interred. Hands erupted from little pockets in the ground, perfect, four-fingered and thumbed. Gideon, stupid with assumption, kicked them off and careened sideways. She ran. It didn't matter: every five feet--every five goddamned feet--bones burst from the ground, grasping her boots, her ankles, her trousers. She staggered away, desperate to find the limits of the field; there were none. The floor of the drillshaft was erupting in fingers and wrists, waving gently, as though buffeted by the wind.
This was the last of the 2020 Hugo-nominated novels that I read, and my mind is blown at the high quality of the set overall. At least four of the set would normally be my choice for Best Novel, but for the fact that they compete against each other. I still say that my personal preference lies withHarrow's The 10,000 doors of January simply because it gave me the most pleasure. But Gideon the Ninth strikes me as the most important book of the set, in the way that Dune is important. It breaks new ground and builds a world unlike any other, with a set of characters, mores and manners, and given circumstances that stay with the reader long after she puts the book down. People will cosplay the characters and be recognizable by other readers whether or not there's eventually an R-rated genre movie that brings an official costume look to the public consciousness.
We are IN A WORLD where society consists of nine "houses" with rivalry and limited contact. The First, ruling house invites each of the other eight to send their best necromancer and one bodyguard to a nearly deserted palace where something something garbanzo will happen, possibly including competition among them, possibly including a series of dead bodies, possibly with plot twists that stack and stack again, definitely including Hot Lesbian Sex and a lot of badass cussing and fighting and attitude. Very highest recommendations.
Christmas on Discworld: Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
The Death of Rats couldn't see much of the donor of this munificence. The Big Red Hood hid all of the face, apart from a long white beard.
Finally, when the figure finished, it stood back and pulled a list out of its pocket. It held it up to its hood and appeared to be consulting it. It waved its other hand vaguely at the fireplace, the sooty footprints, the empty sherry glass and the stocking. Then it bent forward, as if reading some tiny print.
AH, YES, it said. ER....'HO-HO-HO'.".
I always check out a Discworld book for Christmas, as this stuff gives me more pleasure than almost any other reading, and 2020 was outstanding in at least one respect: It's the year when I got to Pratchett's send-up of Christmas and all of its tropes, from ancient tradition to Victorian tradition to 20th Century commercialist glurge.
Pratchett is one of a kind. Some day, I will spend the days of advent reading this one out loud to those family members who consent, much as I once read Good Omens out loud and the way some more mundane families read Dickens. You, if you haven't already done so, should read it next Christmas, which will hopefully be a merrier one than what we've just had. the bar to clear is low.