The end of term is here, and with that comes a much needed winter break. One thing that I enjoy prior to Christmas break is compiling a list of books for my holiday reading. It gets me excited for the holiday season. I also enjoy sharing books, and have grown to like the idea of posting a holiday reading list every year. As I was spoiled with an incredible haul of books for Christmas, my original holiday reading list has grown optimistically from four books to whatever-I-can-fit-in-because-I-must-devour-them-all.
I am currently rereading all of Tolkien’s published works, beginning with the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As updated on my Goodreads, I am currently about half-way through The Fellowship of the Ring and plan to start The Two Towers before my holiday is over.
My plan for the new year, after reading the original trilogy, is to then read The Silmarillion, which gives an account of the Elder Days (or what is also known as the First Age) of Middle Earth. As a Christmas gift, Beth gave me the complete twelve volume series of The History of Middle Earth that also includes four volumes of The History of The Lord of the Rings to complete my collection. This series collects and analyses much of Tolkien’s legendarium, compiled and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien. Although I have read many academic papers on Tolkien and have spent hundreds of hours on Tolkien Gateway, various Wikis, and the Encyclopedia of Arda, studying so much lore, I have not read actually these volumes (and other companion books) from Christopher Tolkien.
With these new additions to my collection, I now need to reorganise my bookshelves, as my Tolkien books require a shelve or two of their own! Separating the original triology and the extensive multivolume series are other companion books, such as the beautifully leather bounded Encyclopedia of Tolkien by David Day (I share a picture below because the cover is just so bloody lovely), which Beth gifted me last year. I really enjoyed reading this and find myself returning to it from time to time as a handy reference.
So my reading through the whole of Tolkien’s published works is very much ongoing, beginning well before my Christmas break and extending far after. But the afternoons I’ve spent in the last week or so adventuring again with The Fellowship has been immensely enjoyable. J.R.R. Tolkien was a master. There is just nothing else comparable, to my mind.
My plan is to write quite a bit about Tolkien in the next year. I’ve already started an essay about his views on allegory and another on his views of the Enlightenment. Hopefully some other essays will round into form and also make it onto this blog or elsewhere.
Power and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages
Prior to recieving so many wonderful books for Christmas, at the start of my break I began reading Dan Jones’ much lauded Power and Thrones. This book is immense, covering almost entirely the one-thousand year period of the Middle Ages stretched between what the English historian John Foxe described as ‘the primitive time’ on the one side – essentially the time of the ancients, pre- and early Christianity, and the height of the Romans – and the ‘latter days’ – referring to the era of the Reformation and the period when western navigators started exploring the New World. I’m currently a couple of chapters into Part I, which covers the Roman Empire in the west, the so-called ‘barbarian’ realms, the Byzantium, and the first Islamic empires. I have so far enjoyed the book very much. It is one that I can see myself writing about in the coming months, once my thoughts have settled.
Aftermath : Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich
There are two sociological topics that I have been thinking about lately. The first has to do with the political spectrum. I personally find it difficult to make sense of the political spectrum as first conceived during the time of the French Revolution. I don’t have much time for ideology. When it comes to sociological and philosophical matters I am primarily interested in ideas and in studying concepts – that is, in studying the matters themselves. That ideas and concepts, as well as the study of the human social world more broadly, can so often become stuck in ideologies of Left and Right, seems intellectually lazy. As the extremes of the political Left and Right eventually fold into one another, I struggle to understand on an objective level the sort of factionalism that takes place, especially from those who wish to take seriously social, philosophical, and political questions. The old thought exercise of pretending to assume the role of an alien looking down onto the world and its trends is much favoured.
With that perspective, I’ve picked up Harald Jähner’s Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich.
This book is fascinating on so many levels, not just in terms of a human study. So much of the historical study of the Second World War ends at the fall of Nazi Germany. But what was the experience of the everyday German after this event? There is a period ranging from the end of the war and the currency reform to the establishment of the Federal Republic that seems to get lost. This is a book that looks microscopically at these years. It finely cuts into and excavates the ruins of post-war Germany. There is a sense of phenomenology to its historiography – describing in places the minutiae based on primary source accounts of purely devastated life. The economy has completely collapsed along with so many other vital institutions. Honest people have to partake in acts of theft and other crime; others try to flee the country or simply (however not so simply, mind) get back to work. Then there are other issues such as widespread rape and other forms of violence, which are also included in the dynamics between remaining allied soldiers, Russian soldiers, and German citizens. More than that, we observe a society that struggles to contemplate incomprehensible socio-cultural and historical realities of recent past. This is a society, bathed in ruins, comprised of individuals and entire communities trying process what it had enabled during the Third Reich. Some wallow in a strange sense of victimhood, fuelled by the legacy of lasting myths that actively suppresses any mention or recognition of Jewish victims or the many atrocities of the Holocaust. Others are trying to completely erase and forget the past, creating a fresh start in life. Then there is another group, who seek to stare into the past critically without comprise, contemplating how German culture and any practical discussion of dignity and morals could even go on. These challenging questions were not just academic but very practical, like how should respect be taught to children given the evils that have been systematically inflicted on others.
These are the sort of fascinating insights and discussions that seem to be revealed in this book. As far as I have gotten, amidst the literal ruins, there is a strange sort of beauty if I can describe it as such. I mean, it is hard to speak of any sort of beauty in this context, given so much suffering and keeping mindful of the barbarities of the Holocaust. But, at least up to the point where I have left off in Aftermath (a lot can still change in perspective), I have been made to think again of other books from the time, such as Viktor Frankl’s A Man’s Search for Meaning. In some sense, there is a sort of absurdity to post-war Germany: in places former Nazi members may still hold a position in a governmental office, certain classes of citizens still explicitly hold Nazi ideological views while others (or the same) actively deny the realities of the concentration camps, meanwhile there is an entire class of German citizens who were not complicit as such, who were victims of the war and who were tasked in trying to move forward in life. It is the creation of meaning again, of finding life anew, that I am indicating here. This relates to the second question I have been thinking about prior to picking up this book: the persistence of human culture and societal principles. This is a well-thought and certainly widely studied question of history. With it I think is the study of a special type of beauty which comes with the existence of human beings (part of our better angels, one might say): art, music, poetry, philosophy, science. With the destruction brought about by a violent ideology, with its suffocation of culture and ideas; despite the terrible and the disgusting, people and the positive aspects of humanity seem to come through. In post-war Germany, it is such a starkly constrasting picture. Everything was completely shattered – all bonds and structure. There is also this monstrous ideology still lurking in the shadows, so to speak; and yet in amongst the suffering and ruin, and against the lasting artifacts of madness, from a German citizen perspective there are glinting traces of people and culture again positively coming through. In a lot of history that I’ve read, this is something that often strikes me.
Unbearable lightness of being
There is a characteristic feature of human experience that I struggle with greatly; it is an experience that I think about a lot, one which I continue to find no resolution. It comes in many forms and seems to arise in many different contexts: finiteness and being. It is a deeply existential struggle, I know, but it is one that has stayed with me since I was a kid. In practical terms, one can think simply of the unbearable finiteness of a good moment. Think for example of the times when you are having such a good day that you don’t want it to end – a day so good, so pure and joyous in the moment, that you would strain every fibre of your being for it to continue – only in the night to count the hours toward its unavoidable conclusion. It’s this sort of frustrating, hollowing, abyssmal experience that hits me. Finiteness and time – what I would also describe as the stable and the ephemeral – is an experience I’ve written a lot about in the past, and I am always looking for new ways to encircle it. As it relates, I am looking forward to reading Milan Kundera’s classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which also brings to mind Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence. I don’t know yet if there is any connection; what I do know is that I should have read this book a long time ago.
There are two books on biology and physics that I want to share, as I have been flicking through them. They are not technical books, but what I would class a useful reference books which offer a nice summary and status report. The first is Biology and Mathematics: History and Challenges by Roger Buis. I’ve jumped straight into chapters three and four, which focus on mathematical biology and the physics of biology respectively. The second book is The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution by Charles Cockell.
I have to be honest about something. I am somewhat ashamed to say that I had not been familiar with any of the writings of Hilary Mantel until yesterday. Upon being introduce to the Wolf Hall trilogy, at first I didn’t know what to think. But having read about the books and also about Mantel as an author, I am eager to start reading Wolf Hall. The reviews for this series of books are unlike anything I’ve seen before: well-known and respectable critics have described them as more than literary masterpieces, these books are supposed to be the finest historical fiction ever written from the greatest English prose writer of our time!
One book that I have been keen to read for sometime is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. From the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this book is highly recommended by many a reviewer. I always try to go in to a piece of fiction as fresh as possible, so I’ve avoided any detail. I know from the title there is an allusion to Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose imaginary prisons are no less evocative after several viewings. As a book of fantasy, what I expect is an experience that approximately combines Greek mythology and Surrealism. It’s a smaller book that should prove a quick read. I shall report back, unless at some point I become lost in the infinite tower.
Philosophical logic and decoding Schopenhauer’s metaphysics
Finally, if this list is not already much too long, there are two books of philosophy I want to share. I doubt I will get any deeper than skimming their respective pages this week, but I have been wanting to read both books for a year or more. They were part of my massive Christmas book haul, and so I have added them to my overly optimistic reading list. They may have to wait for weekends in January and February when I want some extra stimulation outside of whatever work problems I am considering.
Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics is more of a booklet I would say, as it is only about one-hundred pages. I haven’t read Schopenhauer in many years, but as this book was recommended to me within a physics context I am interested to learn the author’s arguments. I do think Schopenhauer’s epistemology is not taken seriously enough, starting from what I remember as quite a refined critique of Kant. I’ll have to refresh myself on his theory of the senses and fourfold principles of reason. Perhaps worthy of a future post, we’ll see.
The next book is more about reviewing contemporary philosophy and its status. The author is David Papineau and the book is titled, Philosophical Devices: Proofs, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Sets. I am particularly interested in the chapters on sets, which I assume will also lead to a discussion – or mention – of categories; the chapter on analyticity, a prioricity, and necessity; and finally the chapter on Gödel’s theorem.
I’d best stop here.
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