What is it about knowing what someone else likes to read? It’s quite an intimate thing. For me, I covered 20+ books last year. Forget those challenges of “a book a week”. This is not about the quantity of information that can be consumed, which the brain then selectively discharges as “not useful”, but about the quality of comprehension. Having reflected on 2020, the spectrum of my literary choices was very broad, and is an aspect I intend to refine coming into this year. Nevertheless the books are listed below, but for the sake of ease, I have relayed my top picks in greater detail.
A Dante scholar advised me that once you have read The Commedia for the first time, you’re now ready to the read the Commedia. It took me a while to understand what he meant, but after my second reading of Dante’s magnum opus, his guidance was clear. The more you immerse yourself, the more you will begin to peel away the layers, and ultimately get to the core of Dante’s message. Dante introduces us to new ways of seeing and thinking. A dominant theme is that change and metamorphosis are a part of our life. He calls this The Human Condition, and his examination takes the reader on a visceral journey through Hell (suffering, desolation, self-destruction), Purgatorio (hardship, guilt, free will), and Paradiso (bliss, self finding, rejoicement of humanity). Although a central part, this meditation is not just about Christian thought that prevailed in the fourteenth century. This is about you, as an individual, and through the bliss and suffering of our lives, the agony of being human.
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist and economist, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. In this bestseller, Kahneman, in his own words, attempts to lay out how to “improve the ability to identify and understand errors in judgement and choice, in ourselves and others, through richer and more precise language“. So why is this worth us understanding? It’s straightforward: every day we make a myriad of decisions; we obfuscate, we assume, we create perceptions. We are inherently biased through own our personal history and resulting prejudices. One of Kahneman’s central constructs is System 1 and System 2; metaphorical parts of our brain that are engaged at different times which thus informs our decision making . By understanding how our mind works, we raise our own cognitive awareness to the potential flaws in our thinking processes, and thus empowering us to improve and make better choices.
During my inaugural course at the Oxford Department for Continuing Education (can be viewed here), this clearly structured introduction to Formal Logic underpinned the coursework. The tutor and the author, Marianne Talbot, takes a difficult subject, and distills in into bite-sized consumable chunks, although there is a requirement to approach cumulatively. I have been exploring Logic and Reasoning throughout a series of posts here and here, as it appeals to my meticulous nature. Her motivation, both with the book and the course itself, is to “help those who have never studied argument get to grips with the skills they need to argue, and evaluate others’ arguments, effectively“. But this is not argumentation in the aggressive or self-serving sense; this is about skills to engage one’s brain and not seek to impose one’s opinion on others. This helps one avoid sophism, identify fallacies, ensure balance, and be open minded; the fulcrum of which is in the Principle of Charity which is a key component. The first half of the book is of most value, as the deeper you go the more technical the topic becomes. The written style of the early chapters are straightforward, and if studied in tandem with the course, will certainly improve how you approach logical reasoning.
One that needs little introduction, and a novel I have now read three times. I have been enamoured with parts of the Russian literary canon, and typically Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekov have been notable highlights for me. The examinations of the turmoil when people are emotionally trapped, the tales of unfrequented love within the shackles of family & society, and of course the many passions: love, hate, rage, jealously. Tolstoy’s masterpiece has them all; manifested sublimely through a vast array of characters. There have been raging debates about who the main protagonist is; the heroine of the title or through one of the remarkable parallel narratives. Take the plunge, immerse yourself in the stories of Vronsky, Oblonsky, Levin, and the conflicted Karenina herself. These characters do not just display a range of emotions, but are also paradigmatic of 19th century Russian society.
I stumbled across this little gem by accident. Today, there are a near-limitless supply of self-help, productivity, and development orientated books on our virtual shelves. But Sertillanges, who was a French Catholic philosopher and spiritual writer, approaches this field from a deeply honest and disciplined perspective. There is something unique reading an intellectual manifesto from an individual who is not influenced by our modern world. After all, the austere environment he wrote this in was free. Free in the sense of allowing him to focus entirely on the concern at hand: how to live an intellectual life and develop intellectual habits. For this comes from within, and his thesis is immune to whatever society the reader happens to occupy. His treatise lays out how an intellectual life is defined, why it is important, how to create the right environment, how to ‘effectualise’ your mind (my term not his), and the precepts that must be crafted. True, there is a strong pious element that runs through this book, which is natural given Sertillanges beliefs, but underneath it is a no-nonsense, no-excuses, straight to the point, narrative. There are no technology shortcuts here; just old-fashioned effort and disciple required, epitomised in one of his opening statements: “A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings. It requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort“. The ultimate objective here is fulfilment as a human being, which, as Sertillanges contends, and The Cultural Aficionado would concur with, comes from living an intellectual life.
I have not been familiar with Italian fiction of the last 150 years, so after some rigorous Googling, I came across the recommendation of I Malavoglia. The drama details the lives of a family of fishermen who work and live in Aci Trezza, a small Sicilian village near Catania. It depicts characters united by the same culture, but divided by ancient rivalries. I read the novel whilst on holiday, and it was a rather odd, and sometimes, unsettling experience. Throughout the duration of the read I ended up feeling rather underwhelmed; it felt repetitious, verbose, and like waiting for the blitz of a crescendo that never arrived. But in the months that followed, I found myself thinking about the Toscano family. The echoic sentiment was of course entirely deliberate. The lineage of these families, the tragedies, problems, hardships, and expectations, transpose themselves into each generation, caught in a never-ending cycle of events and even predictability. The vivid descriptions of simple Sicilian life brought a a real sense of realism, despondency, and eventually sympathy to the hardness of life in those circumstances. It ultimately made me brim with gratitude for the many modern luxuries contemporary life has bestowed upon us.
The other remaining books that I managed to complete, and may be of interest to you dear reader, are:
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronty
- And After the Fire, Lauren Belfer
- Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle
- Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
- Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World, Daniel Epstein
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport
- The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Pierre Hadot
- The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer
- Dante: The Story of his Life, Marco Santagata
- Heroes, Stephen Fry
- Mastery, Robert Greene
- Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain