Prefaces

My daily commute has recently increased from 5 minutes to 50 minutes. As a result, I have added a new category of reading to my routine: train reading.

The law library has some “popular reading”, but I have no interest in the works of John Grisham and the selection consists of little else. I was pleased to find, however, that there is also a complete set of the Harvard Classics. I picked up Volume 39, Prefaces and Prologues. The table of contents included a list of authors who all either are or ought to be among those I have written about on this blog: Calvin, Copernicus, Bacon, Newton, Goethe, and more. But it was after reading the introductory note by William Allan Neilson that I was totally set on making this volume my commute reading.

According to Neilson, a preface is where “the author descends from his platform, and speaks with his reader as man to man.” Whatever the character of his narrative voice in the final work, the preface is his own; “a personality which has been veiled by a formal method throughout many chapters, is suddenly seen face to face in the Preface.” In short, the preface is the closest thing to getting to chat with the author about his work, and that conversational aspect appeals to me greatly.

The very first reading on this blog was a preface: Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Since then, I have used prefaces from Bede, Kant, Descartes, Machiavelli, Huygens, and Rabelais. If the preface really is the way to interact with authors “man to man” as Neilson put it, I could hardly think of a group of men I would rather get to know.

So I attempted to check out Volume 39 and was informed that the library does not allow books that are part of a set to circulate. I suppose that the idea is that if I were to steal the book or lose it, it would ruin the set. There are plenty of copies of the Harvard Classics out there, but replacing a given volume from a specific printing might prove difficult or even impossible. Still, I would be willing to wager that I am the only patron who has picked up that particular book since it was placed on the shelf. I may even be the only person to have opened it since a rubber stamp was used to mark it as library property. Under these circumstances, it seems pretty stupid to keep the books from being checked-out by the one person with any interest in them.

Since unthinking bureaucracy crushed my reading plans, I checked out a book of Kafka short stories instead. It seemed only appropriate.

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Beer of the Week: Hamm’s Premium – The can still says that Hamm’s is “from the land of sky blue waters,” but it is no longer brewed in Minnesota, but in Milwaukee by MillerCoors. (See also National Bohemian beer, from “the land of pleasant living” and also brewed under contract far from the original brewery.) Even after taxes, I paid less than 50¢ per can for this beer, so expectations were low. So low, in fact, that I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, it is not good; it is about as bland as mass produced beers get. It is, however, not bad. I could drink a lot of this stuff on a hot day and not complain.

Reading for the Week: Harvard Classics Vol. 39 by William Allan Neilson – When Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, suggested that a liberal education could be obtained by reading 15 minutes daily from five feet of shelf space, publishers asked him to prove it. And so, the Harvard Classics “Five Foot Shelf” was born. Eliot selected the works to be included and enlisted William Neilson to choose the editions and write the introductions.

Question for the Week: What work would you most like to discuss with its author?

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Of Cats and Dogs

Some people divide the world into two groups: cat people and dog people. I think that the distinction is too stark. I know people who love both dogs and cats. I also know of people who don’t like either. In The Reivers, William Faulkner, without expressly stating a personal preference, rated cats as more intelligent than dogs (though less intelligent than rats and mules.)

Cats, he explains, are total parasites. They do whatever they want and cannot be bothered to lend a hand. They contribute nothing to your household by way of work. They don’t help with the chores. They don’t sweep the house or bring home groceries. (Although in my experience, cats will bring home a mouse or mole occasionally, which certainly gives the appearance of attempting to chip in.) Still, “the cat lives with you, is completely dependent on you for food and shelter but lifts no paw for you and loves you not.”

Although many dog breeds were selected for labor, the vast majority of dogs are every bit the parasite that cats are. They too are totally dependent for food and shelter. The difference is that they don’t have the good sense to resent you for it. For your approval, they will perform all manner of demeaning “tricks”. As Faulkner says, “[a dog] will debase and violate his own dignity for your amusement; he fawns in return for a kick, he will give his life for you in battle and grieve himself to starvation over your bones.”

Nobody can ever accuse a cat of being so foolish as to actually care what his owner thinks.

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Beer of the Week: Pegas New Zealand IPA – This local brew from Brno, Czech Republic is pretty darn good. As far as I can tell, it is an American-style IPA brewed with New Zealand hops, and plenty of them. The alcohol content is a bit lower than most American IPAs at 5%, but the flavor is dead on. This golden beer has a nice, thick head and a very strong aroma of hops. The bitter hops dominate the flavor as well, but there is some good bready malt in the finish to round out the taste. With the quality of this beer, I would not be surprised if Pegas expands beyond Brno soon.

Reading for the Week: The Reivers by William Faulkner – During this comedic novella, the narrator goes on a few interesting digressions about the history of his part of Mississippi and on the nature of animals. In this excerpt, he ranks animals based on intelligence and usefulness and explains why he holds mules in such high regard.

Question for the week: Is Faulkner’s ranking of animals based on intelligence (rat, mule, cat, dog) the reverse order of how these animals would rank in terms of companionship? If so, what about the inclusion of the horse as the least intelligent?


Memories

They say that smell is the sense with the closest link to memory. The other day, as I washed some beer glasses with a new dish soap, I was transported to a distant time and place. I was suddenly in a bubble bath in my parents’ home. I recognized the aroma immediately, even though it has certainly been over twenty years.

I have heard that one does not have memories of events, only memories of the last time that the event was remembered. That could explain how memories degrade or take on new, extraneous parts. For example, over the last few months, I listened to audio-books while walking from place to place. Later, I found myself thinking about specific chapters when I happened to be in the same place that I heard it. The sight of a particular building or shop would remind me of a character or a fictional village.

The intensely personal nature of these memory links is what really intrigues me. Such an association seems perfectly natural, but it is interesting that I am almost certainly the only person in the world with that specific connection. Of the thousands of people who walk past that shop, I am the only one who is reminded of that book. Let alone being reminded of a given chapter, line or character. The smell of that dish soap probably reminds at least some other people of their childhood bubble baths, but even that isn’t really the same. The memory for me includes the color of the tile and the feel of the washcloth, details that are unique to me.

 

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Beer of the week: Berghoff Winter Ale – Berghoff is a well known name in Chicago, but probably unheard of in most other places. Berghoff started as an Indiana brewery, but eventually became a downtown Chicago beer hall. Their Winter Ale is a real treat. It is a dark, full bodied beer. The aroma has hints of marshmallow and the sweet, cakey malt makes this beer a delicious winter drink.

Reading of the week: Winter by William Shakespeare – Winter brings with it both the undesirable and the desirable. Coughs and red, raw noses are an unavoidable part of this season, but there is also the cheerful “Tu-whoo” of owls and the smell of roasting… crabs? Maybe winter traditions have changed a bit since Shakespeare’s time.

Question of the week: Could the most pleasant parts of winter (hot chocolate, open hearth fires, skiing) be nearly so good without the less pleasant parts (runny noses, wet socks)? And are the memories of the pleasant and unpleasant inextricably linked?


A Eulogy

When I was seventeen, I visited my uncle in Australia. As he was warming up the barbie (he seriously called the grill that) he said, “Why don’t you go get two beers from the fridge?” “Two?” I replied. “Yeah, one for me and one for you.” It wasn’t my first beer, but it was the first beer that I drank with an adult, as an adult. We were just two men, sipping beers on the back porch while sausages sizzled on the grill. It was special, because we acted like it wasn’t. I passed out immediately after dinner, but that was because of the jet lag, not the beer.

I still have my temporary membership card to the Icebergs Club in Sydney. The rest of the world has “polar bear” clubs, whose members swim in frigid winter waters, but it never gets all that cold in Sydney. So the members of the Icebergs Club have to float blocks of ice in their beachside swimming pool to get the same effect. My uncle and I joined the club for a day, not to swim but to have lunch and beers in the clubhouse.

I know that is not much of a story. I only mention it as an excuse. If we never shared those beers, it would feel wrong to eulogize about my uncle on this blog. This really is not an appropriate venue for a eulogy, but those Australian brews ease my way. He was a man who made others feel comfortable, and casually enjoying a cold beer with such a man is one of the world’s finest pleasures. And it is a damned shame that I will not get to share another one with him.

When a great man’s light goes out, whether it is snuffed out abruptly or it slowly flickers and fades, the whole world becomes a bit darker. And those of us who have been lucky enough to live in that light have a duty to shine a little bit brighter to keep the whole world from going dark. My uncle was a grandfather to a lovely little girl, a father to a beautiful young woman, a husband to two women (not at the same time,) a brother to thirteen(!) siblings, an uncle to dozens of nieces and nephews, and a friend to innumerable people around the world. He gave a lot of light to a lot of people, and now we must do our best to burn brighter to fill the void.

Do me a favor, do yourself a favor, do the world a favor: live well, share freely, make others comfortable. We’ve lost a great man, so we all have to take up some of the slack.

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Beer of the week: Hollandia Premium Lager – Most of the beers I had with my uncle were VB’s. When I returned to Australia a few years later, I stayed with my cousin in Melbourne and brought this beer to a party. Beer prices in Australia are pretty steep. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, only Frenchmen and Singaporeans pay more per pint. I was quite surprised to find that this Dutch import was the cheapest beer on offer at a Melbourne liquor store. To be fair, Hollandia seems to be pretty cheap anywhere it can be found. This clear, golden lager is fairly basic. The aroma is very slight, but has sweet hints of cider or champagne. There really is very little flavor to write about. Hollandia doesn’t taste bad, but it sure is bland.

Reading of the week: Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson –  From Tennyson to Tolkien, sailing off into the night is a popular metaphor for death. It is apt; if life is a journey, the last leg is done alone.

Question of the week: How can you live better?