Characteristic Reading

An excellent way for an author to quickly give the reader a sense for his characters is to describe how and what they read. In Eugene Onegin, for example, Alexander Pushkin tells us that Tatyana Larina kept the romantic novels of Samuel Richardson under her pillow, and that Vladimir Lensky had his soul “fired by the flame” of Goethe and Schiller’s poetry. Those small details say volumes about the characters, so to speak.

The problem, of course, is that we readers can only understand the full import of the characters’ reading habits if we, ourselves, are well-read. Knowing that Lensky’s soul was refined by Goethe and Schiller is only helpful if we know anything about Goethe and Schiller’s writing. The more one reads, the more one needs to read.

Beer of the week: Framboise Rose Gose – This Anderson Valley brew is something else. It is not quite clear, pinkish-straw in color, and pours with a very quickly dissipating head. The aroma is very fruity and floral, with loads of berry. The flavor follows the aroma, with tart, slightly astringent raspberry doing all of the heavy lifting. The finish is relatively long, with floral notes hanging around in the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: Middlemarch by George Eliot – Pushkin, of course, is not the only author to have used the technique discussed above. In her description of the character Dorothea Brooke, Eliot mentions that “Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart.” Dorothea also “had strange whims of … sitting up at night to read old theological books!” Later in the book, Dorothea adopts the habit of “getting down learned books from the library and reading many things hastily” so that she might be better prepared for elevated conversation.

Question of the week: If somebody wanted to describe you in this way, what reading habit or favorite books of yours would they mention?


Some Fantastic

The top ten earning films of the 2010’s consisted of four Marvel superhero movies, three Star Wars movies, two animated Disney films (The Incredibles 2 and the “live action” Lion King remake,) and the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise.

These films have a lot in common. For one thing, Disney and it’s subsidiaries produced and distributed nine out of the ten. Additionally, aside from the Lion King remake, each film was a sequel.* (Not to say that there is anything necessarily bad about remakes or sequels. The Wizard of Oz is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time, but the novel on which was based had been adapted for stage and screen several times before. And several of Shakespeare’s plays are sequels or retellings of old stories.)

The most interesting similarity to me, though, is the fact that the movies all have prominent fantastical elements. None of the films are about ordinary humans interacting with the world as we know it. Aside from Jurassic World and Lion King–which feature invisible dinosaurs and talking animals living in an interspecies hereditary kingdom, respectively–the movies all have space magic and/or superhumans. (There is probably a fair distinction to be made here between science fiction and fantasy, but I am not the person to make it. And, as Arthur C. Clark famously put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

At the risk of being predictable, I’d like to compare these blockbuster movies with a couple classics of Russian literature.

At a glance, Alexander Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is also fantastical. It has a vengeful ghost and a magical formula to make certain playing cards into guaranteed winners. However, only one character, Hermann, sees the ghost. Hermann is also the only one who attempts the winning trick or sees the titular playing card wink its eye. And before all of that happens, the narrator tells us of “the disordered condition of [Hermann’s] uncontrollable imagination.” At the end of the story, Hermann is committed to an insane asylum. The story is overtly fantastical, but it is possible that Hermann is simply insane, and that all of the supernatural elements of the story are the products of his disordered imagination. That ambiguity, in my opinion, makes the story more compelling.

Similarly, there is an overtly fantastical story embedded in Dostoyevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha a tale about Jesus returning to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus heals the blind and raises a young girl from the dead before being imprisoned and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor. Notably, Jesus is not mentioned by name, but is only referred to as “He” (spelled with a capital “H” in every English translation that I’ve seen.) At one point, Alyosha interrupts to ask whether this is all in the Grand Inquisitor’s imagination or whether he has somehow mistaken some ordinary person for Jesus. “Take it as the last,” replies Ivan, “if you are so corrupted by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic. If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so.” Ivan goes on to explain that isn’t important whether the prisoner really is Jesus or merely “the delusion of an old man of ninety, over-excited by the auto da fe of a hundred heretics the day before.” What matters is that the appearance of Jesus (real or imagined) presents the character of the Grand Inquisitor the opportunity to give voice to his deepest thoughts.

The same is true of The Queen of Spades. Whether Hermann saw the ghost because he was insane or went insane only later is not really important. What matters is that the appearance of the ghost gave Hermann the opportunity to yield completely to his avarice and advance the plot of the story.

Who knows, maybe the fantastical elements of blockbuster films are also intentionally ambiguous devices that ultimately reveal the souls of the characters.

Beer of the week: Smittytown ESB – This fantastic Extra Special Bitter comes from Temperance Beer Company in Evanston, Illinois. It is dark gold in color, with a slight haze. The beer is very effervescent, with an aroma of caramel malt. The caramel malt leads the flavor as well, and is followed by a nice hops kick in the back of the throat. Smittytown is a great, well-balanced brew.

Reading of the week: The Grand Inquisitor from The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski – This excerpt is from the beginning of Ivan’s tale, when Jesus first appears in Seville and performs miracles. (Note that I do not hesitate to call the visitor Jesus. This is because 1) the story makes it clear that everybody can tell who He is just by looking at Him, and 2) Ivan says that it doesn’t matter if it is really Jesus or not, so it isn’t worth any effort to avoid using His name.)

Question for the week: Why are fantastical stories occasionally thought of as juvenile and lowbrow? After all, many bonafide classics are highly fantastical, such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Divine Comedy, and several of Shakespeare’s comedies.

*A couple of the movies are not generally referred to as sequels, such as Rogue One and Black Panther. But the fact that they are stories that take place in the same universes as earlier movies makes the distinction pretty tenuous.


The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List

Around the world, the spread of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has caused remarkable disruptions to travel, sport, and society in general. Many people have been subjected to quarantines, but a great many more have been advised to work from home and otherwise keep their “social distance.” Whether the response has been unconscionably slow or dramatically overblown, time will tell. Those considerations are beyond my ken.

Whether you are in a full-on quarantine, are keeping your social distance, or are simply looking for something to do now that the NCAA basketball tournaments have been cancelled, I’ve got you covered. I have compiled The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List ™.  

The qualifications:
– It must be public domain and readily available online; quarantine means no trips to the library.
– It must deal with an epidemic; otherwise, it would just be a reading list.
– It must be long; if you are going to be cooped up for a fortnight, a short story or a single poem won’t chew up enough hours.

I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni. Milan, 1629. The plague is about to hit, hard. Although the main plot of this novel is a love story, the book is full of historical details about the plague and society’s response to it. Indispensable quarantine reading.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Florence, 1348. The Black Death has all but depopulated the city, and ten men and women retreat to a country villa. To pass the time, they take turns telling stories on various topics. The tales are generally witty and urbane, and one can see how a small group in quarantine would find them very diverting.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. London, 1665. It is rumored that the plague resurfaced in the Middle East, or Turkey, or Cyprus. “It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.” And soon it would cross the Channel. It is not clear how much of Defoe’s account is fiction and how much is just compiled firsthand accounts.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Athens, 430 BC. As if being at war were not bad enough, Athens faces a devastating epidemic that throws their polity into tumult. Yet, a mere 15 years later, the Athenians and their allies sent an expedition of 10,000 men to Sicily. Imagine surviving a plague just to die of starvation in a make-shift POW camp in a rock quarry.

That should keep you busy until this all blows over or we all die, whichever comes first. Stay safe. Cheers!

Beer of the week: Cerveza Cantina – Corona would have been too predictable. (Besides, I’ve already reviewed Corona Extra, Corona Light, and Corona Familiar. I thought about finding some Corona Premier, but paying $10 for ultra-light Mexican lager did not appeal to me.) Instead I went with a beer from El Salvador, a country under a national quarantine but (so far) zero confirmed COVID-19 cases. Cantina reminds me vividly of Cafri, Korea’s answer to Corona. It is crystal clear and refreshing. It is a bit too sticky, but not bad overall.

Reading of the week: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe – As a short story, The Masque of the Red Death did not meet the criteria for The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List ™. But it is an excellent length for a reading of the week. The story shows the importance of “social distancing”. Throwing an elaborate ball in the middle of an epidemic was just a bad move. But you almost have to admire that dedication to partying. Literally half the population had recently died of a horrifying illness, and the prince said, “Screw it! Let’s rage!”

Question for the week: What would you put on your reading list if you were quarantined for two weeks?


A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Muriel toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.

Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.

By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.

It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.

Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.

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Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)

Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?


Where the Story of Christmas Begins

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

P.G. Wodehouse

The Christmas story–the nativity of Jesus, not the beloved 1980’s movie with the BB gun–comes from the gospels. But each gospel writer took a different starting point for Jesus’ origin story.

Matthew starts the story 42 generations earlier, with Abraham fathering Isaac. The genealogy goes on through Jacob and Judah, Kings David and Solomon, and finally Joseph, husband of Mary. (Also in that bloodline are Jehoshaphat, Salmon, and Zerubbabel, whose names are curiously absent from most popular baby name lists.) Matthew goes into the annunciation (when an angel announced the holy pregnancy,) then the birth, and then the visit of the wisemen from the East.

Mark starts with a quotation from the prophet Isiah. He then skips Christmas altogether, and introduces John the Baptist and Jesus as adults.

Luke, not content to let the story speak for itself, starts with something of an author’s prologue. He addresses the gospel to someone called Theophilus (which, if my Greek is any good at all, must mean something like “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” or “God-lover”.) Before getting into the classic Christmas stuff, Luke spends the better part of a chapter on the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and John’s parents. It isn’t until chapter two that we get the birth, the manger, and the shepherds.

John famously starts his gospel “In the beginning…”, which seems reasonable enough. But the beginning that John identifies predates creation itself (if anything can be said to “predate” the very notion of time.) John covers the entirety of pre-creation through the birth of John the Baptist in about six verses. The birth of Jesus gets a single verse, and then jumps right into the exploits of adult Jesus.

As usual, a closer look raises more questions than answers. Why is the Christmas story relatively unimportant to most of the gospel writers? Why did the gospel writers start in such different ways? Who is Theophilus, anyway?

Beers of the week: Our Special Ale (2017 & 2019) – Our Special Ale is Anchor Brewing Company’s annual holiday beer. Having got my hands on a cellared bottle of the 2017 edition I decided to compare it with the 2019 version. (Although Anchor does not particularly recommend aging their holiday beers, they do claim that it will mellow with age.) The recipe changes from year to year, so differences between the two can’t be attributed solely to the aging.

The 2017 edition is very dark brown, with just a hint of red, and a tan, rocky head. Its aroma has notes of smoke and black licorice. The main flavors seem to come from dark-roasted malt, without much hops to speak of.

The 2019 is dark red-brown, with a lighter, more uniform head. The aroma has some bright hops. The flavor is nicely balanced, with some dark malt notes and a bit of bright hops and spice.

Between the two versions, I certainly prefer the 2019. It is brighter and more carbonated, probably because it wasn’t aged. And, whether it is attributable to the aging or not, the 2017 seems a bit flat and one-note.

Reading of the week: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Prologue – As Wharton points out in her introduction to the second edition, “the climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation after the first acts of” Ethan Frome. As a result, she set the prologue of the book long after the principal action, introducing the title character as a fifty-two-year-old with a bad limp. The reader must cross many chapters and two decades to learn the limp’s cause.

Question for the week: Where would your story begin? At your birth? At the birth of your most distant known ancestor? Or, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, would your story begin at your funeral?


To Be Prevailed Upon By One’s Friends

Earlier this year, I considered bringing this blog to a close. I even started drafting Post 300 as a farewell post. As much as I’ve loved writing this blog–over the past 8+ years and on three continents–it is work. And, more importantly at this stage in my life, it is time consuming.

But I got some vital feedback at just the right time to keep me going. In the first place, I learned about the Beer Appreciation course offered by Cornell University. Then a friend convinced me that my readers care enough about this blog to contribute actual money toward tuition for that course. Even more important than the money was the fact that people wanted to engage. Many of the readers who were willing to contribute money were also eager to recommend beers and readings, and become part of the blog process. (By the way, from very early on, I have encouraged readers to make suggestions through the “Make a Recommendation” page. I don’t think that form has been used once.)

Secondly, I got a very encouraging (and unsolicited) message at a critical time. Of this blog, a friend said: “I hope it never ends.” How could I quit after reading such a sentiment?

Friends, you’ve kept me going. Thank you all for your contributions, be they monetary or just kind words. Please always feel free to comment or reach out. For my part, I will keep writing this blog until you are sick to death of it.

Beer of the week: Licher Weizen – This German Hefeweizen seems like a good representative of the style. It is quite cloudy, with a big, fluffy head. (As I now know from the Cornell course, the high protein content of wheat contributes both to the cloudiness and the foaminess.) The aroma has notes of banana and clove. (Typical of the esters associated with wheat.) The flavor follows the smell closely, especially the banana. There is just enough hops to remind you that this is, in fact, a beer. I don’t know if this is the best Hefeweizen, but it is definitely everything the style should be.

Reading of the week: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This excerpt is almost entirely dialogue, with the characters debating whether it is better “to yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend” or to insist that the friend provide argument and reason. For, as one character argues, “to yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either [friend].”

Question of the week: Is there any way that this blog could be more engaging? What features/subjects/beers/etc. would induce you to comment/suggest beers/etc.?


Where have all the philosophers gone?

This is the thirty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIV: French and English Philosophers

It has always seemed odd to me to refer to a living person as a philosopher. I am aware of a number of living people who may be considered philosophers, but I think of them variously as authors or professors. Or I consider them in the context of their specific fields: economists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like.

Clearly, part of the distinction that I draw comes from the increasingly specialized nature of study. Aristotle and Bacon did not specialize; their interests and writings are wide-ranging. Even the relatively recent Darwin was more than a biologist; he was also a historian, geologist, and anthropologist. In short, he was a natural philosopher. Likewise, Maimonides was more than just a theologian and an astronomer, he was a physician at a time when the fields of endocrinology, dermatology, and oncology were still centuries from being particularized. Perhaps the lack of specialization and differentiation was key to his ability to think more universally, to be a philosopher.

That is not to put down specialists. As human knowledge becomes both broader and deeper, any given individual must focus more narrowly to make any new headway. But can a philosopher be a specialist? Isn’t universality at the heart of philosophy?

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” I think that it is clear that the wisdom in the word is quite distinct from knowledge. Specialization forces people to look at discrete and minute facts, perhaps prioritizing particular knowledge over universal truth.

The love part of philosophy also seems problematic today. The love of wisdom is a different sort of motivation than I perceive in most people. To pursue wisdom for its own sake is not the same sort of thing that I see in professional academics and authors. I assume that most people, even thinkers that I respect greatly have a profession rather than a passion. Perhaps I see living people as sociologists, legal theorists, or historians rather than philosophers because I can hardly conceive of them working out of a love for wisdom rather than financial and professional necessity. Even “popular philosophers” seem to be doing a job rather than philosophizing as I understand it.

J. J. Rousseau similarly questioned the motivations of purported philosophers: “But were the philosophers in a situation to discover the truth, which of them would be interested in so doing? Each knows very well that his system is no better founded that the systems of others; he defends it, nevertheless, because it is his own. There is not one of them, who, really knowing truth from falsehood, would not prefer the latter, if of his own invention, to the former, discovered by any one else. Where is the philosopher who would not readily deceive mankind, to increase his own reputation? Where is he who secretly proposes any other object than that of distinguishing himself from the rest of mankind? Provided he raises himself above the vulgar, and carries away the prize of fame from his competitors, what doth he require more? The most essential point is to think differently from the rest of the world. Among believers he is an atheist, and among atheists he affects to be a believer.”

Obviously, nobody who would prefer preeminence to truth is a philosopher under our provisional understanding of the word. And if Rousseau is right that all philosophers love their reputation more than they love wisdom, then there are no philosophers at all. I hope that he is wrong, but I wouldn’t even call myself a philosopher. And at least with me,  I have the advantage of knowing my own motivations. I think.

Beer of the week: Sea Quench Ale – This sour beer from Dogfish Head is like licking the rim of a margarita glass. It is yellow and cloudy with a slight green tinge. It smells of lime and the flavor has lots of citrus sourness and a bit of lime rind bitterness. It is really good, but so limey that it is unlike other beers, even other sours.

Reading of the week: Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar by Jean Jacques Rousseau – Rousseau claimed that this section of his Emile was not necessarily an explication of his own philosophy, but simply an example of how to properly reason with a pupil. This excerpt starts near the beginning of the Vicar’s personal investigation, beginning with his Cartesian doubt of anything that he cannot reason from first principles.

Question for the week: Who is your favorite living philosopher?