Harvard Classics Review

This is the fifty-first and final in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume L: Introduction, Readers Guide, Indexes

Thus ends my year-long series on the Harvard Classics. Fifty-one volumes of the greatest books ever written (and as many different beers.) I conclude with a few observations, in no particular order:

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was the biggest surprise of the whole set. I was totally unfamiliar with the book until this project, but so much did I enjoy it, that it is the only volume that I read cover-to-cover. (To be honest, I didn’t make it quite to the back cover. I did not read all of Twenty Four Years Later, the much-delayed epilogue in which Dana returns to California as a celebrity a quarter of a century after his first voyage.) In the book, Dana provides lively and descriptive account of life on a merchant ship and on the old California coast. Of particular note, one need not understand all of the parts and rigging of a ship to thoroughly enjoy his description of his duties as a sailor.

The general index is an excellent tool. In an age with Ctrl+F text searching, the idea that somebody took the time to read through the entire set and cross-reference words and concepts is truly remarkable. It is a humbling reminder of how easy we have it, and a tribute to those who did the hard work that we now take for granted.

As far as I can tell, the famous 15-minutes-a-day reading plan was not added to the set until 1930. I am not sure about that date, but I am sure that my second edition set does not include it. In the past, the daily program has proved very helpful to me. It is a surefire way to find a readable, thought-provoking passage.

I have commented more than once that the set includes a surprising amount of biographical works. I have always been a fan of biography, so I do not consider this a great flaw. However, I do think that the bulk of the biographical works could comfortably be replaced with more “pure” philosophy or something else.

Speaking of replacements, I cannot help but think that several works included in the Harvard Classics would not make the cut if the series were reimagined today. Dana, Manzoni, and Cellini spring to mind. Milton and Darwin would probably be reduced by at least one volume. Volume XV: Bunyan and Walton would almost certainly be excised entirely.

What would be selected to replace these works would depend very much upon the new editor. For mine, I’d add Homer’s Iliad (which I regard as a shocking omission in the first place.) I would exchange one volume of English poetry for one volume of American. I would also probably include some Marx to go along with Smith. Nietzsche is another obvious choice for inclusion. Of course, there are myriad combinations of works that could make up such a set. General agreement on each inclusion is far too much to ask.

Much less controversial than adding or removing works would be reorganizing the whole set. As it is, I can not make any sense of the organizing principle. It is not chronological and does not appear to have any subject-matter order. The poetry of Milton and Burns are near the beginning, while the volumes of English poetry are near the end. Similarly, Greek drama is at the beginning, continental and modern English drama are in the middle, and Elizabethan drama is near the end. I’d favor a roughly chronological arrangement, but subject-matter organization could also work.

In a general way, there is very little fiction in the series. As Dr. Eliot explains in his Editor’s Introduction, “the whole of nineteenth century fiction, with two exceptions, was excluded; partly because of its great bulk, and partly because it is easily accessible.” As a set, there is no particular point in including a novel by Tolstoy or Austen; copies of War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice are not at all hard to come by. Besides, at between 400 and 450 pages, the volumes of the Harvard Classics would not accommodate War and Peace without abridgment. However, I think that one volume of the set could have been reserved for Russian short stories and one volume reserved for American.

During the course of the year, I exchanged comments on another blog that compared the Harvard Classics and the Britannica Great Books of the Western World.  I observed that the blogger omitted any discussion of the books as physical objects. It is my opinion that the Harvard Classics are a better set in physical terms. They are more compact, printed on better paper, and are better formatted. The Britannica set, to nobody’s surprise, is published like an encyclopedia. Consequently, that set is better suited for use as a reference than for ordinary reading. The books are larger and less wieldy. The paper is the thin sort used in bibles and encyclopedias (saving on bulk at the expense of durability and feel.) For the same reason, the pages are laid out in columns. The other blogger’s response to my comment expressed the opinion that the columns make reading easier, but that is obviously incorrect. Columns are employed to save space. That is why they are the preferred format of textbooks, newspapers, and dictionaries, where space is at a premium. Go to the library and pick up any novel you like; it is with good reason that you will not find the pages divided into columns. The Harvard Classics, although not especially high quality books, are an excellent size and format, especially when compared to their younger cousin, the GBWW.

For the purposes of this blog, the set has been quite well suited. It has been much easier to do a regular weekly post with the Harvard Classics providing me with a fixed volume for each week. (To say nothing of the fact that the entire set is now in the public domain, so there is no additional concern on that account.) I do not think that this blog has ever been so consistent. Over the past year, I have published a new post every week without fail.

I fear that such consistency cannot be expected in the future. For one thing, it is a lot more work to pick a reading each week when I cannot simply flip through the next volume of a set. For another, I am drinking less beer than I have in the past. At times I have had a backlog of a dozen beer reviews; I am currently at three. But most importantly, a number of life-changing events happened over the course of this last year spent with the Harvard Classics. Suffice it to say that in the coming year I will spend more time pushing a stroller and doing legal research, and less time blogging.

In the next year, and perhaps the next several years, I think it unlikely that I shall return very often to the Harvard Classics. I am very glad that I took the time to read from each volume, and I still think that they look very well on my bookshelf, but they are generally more for show than anything else at this point. Even if I really want to read any work included in the set, there are reasons that I would not reach for my Harvard Classics. For one thing, I would seek out the best translation of any work not originally in English. The Harvard Classics translations are, naturally, old, public domain translations. Consequently, it is likely that a better translation is available to anybody with a library card or an Amazon account.

All in all, I think that Dr. Eliot may be well satisfied with his project. I now that I am.

Beer of the week: All Day IPA – A book series for all time is quite naturally paired with a beer for all day. Founders brews this lovely session IPA. At 4.7% alcohol by volume (compared to the 7.2% of their Centennial IPA), one could easily go through a few of these. It is dark gold with a nice foamy head. It has hints of pineapple in the hop-forward aroma. The flavor has plenty of hops bitterness without being a palate destroyer, and enough malt to round it all out. A very solid choice.

Reading of the week: The Editor’s Introduction to the Harvard Classics by Charles William Eliot – “Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man.” Thus, Dr. Eliot expresses the essence of his project. This excerpt includes a few ideas on how best to approach the set. (The fact that this “introduction” appears in the fiftieth volume, rather than the first, is a quibble that we must leave for another time.)

Question for the week: What works would you add to the Harvard Classics if you were its modern editor? And what would you cut to make way for your additions?


Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

This is the thirtieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXX: Scientific Papers

In 1911, a mere two years after the Harvard Classics was first published, Douglas Mawson (later Sir Douglas Mawson) led an expedition to map the coastline of Antarctica. He was an adventurer and a hero, but he was a man of science first. The great proof of this is not only in his scientific achievements, but also in his very attitude toward his objectives.

In 1912, Mawson was part of a brutal race against time and weather to get back to the base camp. He was part of a three-man surveying party that had pushed over 300 miles into (quite literally) uncharted territory. Suddenly, one of the dogsleds disappeared into a crevasse. With it went one of the men, B. E. S. Ninnis, the better half of the dogs, and most of the rations. Mawson and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, with little food (and no dog food) turn back to camp faced with the very real possibility that the weather and lack of supplies would thwart their attempted return.

Frostbite was a problem for them. But even worse was a condition called hypervitaminosis A. When humans consume too much vitamin A, they can suffer from adverse mental effects, hair and skin loss, and a slew of other nasty effects. And it just so happens that husky livers are chock-full of vitamin A. Of course, Mawson and Mertz did not know that; vitamin A was not even named until 1920. So when it came time to eat the sled dogs, they ate them liver and all. The results were deadly.

After nearly a month of trudging, eating stringy dog meat, and deteriorating health, Mertz succumbed. With the wind howling outside of the tent, his team members dead, and his own collection of physical ailments, Mawson considered just staying in his sleeping bag. It would be easy to just stay in the bag forever. But instead, he remembered this poem by Robert W. Service:

The Quitter

When you’re lost in the Wild, and you’re scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you’re sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and… die.
But the Code of a Man says: “Fight all you can,”
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow…
It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

“You’re sick of the game!” Well, now, that’s a shame.
You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.
“You’ve had a raw deal!” I know — but don’t squeal,
Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.
It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,
So don’t be a piker, old pard!
Just draw on your grit; it’s so easy to quit:
It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard.

It’s easy to cry that you’re beaten — and die;
It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;
But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —
Why, that’s the best game of them all!
And though you come out of each gruelling bout,
All broken and beaten and scarred,
Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

(Service, by the way, is known as the Bard of the Yukon. How appropriate for someone struggling for life near the South Pole to get strength from a poet of the far north.)

And those words inspired Mawson to break camp and trudge on. The day he buried Mertz in the snow, Mawson wrote in his journal: “I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon. As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive. I greatly regret inability at the moment to set out the detail of coastline met with for three hundred miles travelled and observations of glacier and ice-formations, etc.; the most of which latter are, of course, committed to my head.” See what I mean about Mawson’s attitude toward his geographic work?

Over the next thirty days, Mawson made his way back toward base. At one point, he fell through the ice. However the sled, what was left of it, wedged in the opening of the crevasse, and Mawson dangled from a rope above the abyss. Despite his weakened state, he hauled himself up, only for the edge to break away beneath him and leave him hanging once more at the end of the rope. He summoned all of his strength for one final attempt and dragged himself from the gulf in the ice.

Eventually, Mawson made it back to base camp. He returned without his companions, without his dogs, and without much of his skin and hair. What he did bring back was a great deal of geographical information, including names for two large glaciers on the Antarctic coast: Ninnis Glacier and Mertz Glacier.

Beer of the week: Alaskan Amber – Alaska has many nicknames, including “The Last Frontier”. But Mawson’s account of Antarctica makes Alaska seem relatively tame. And at least Alaska has breweries. From Juneau comes this delightful amber ale. It pours a clear dark amber with a good head. It smells mostly of roasted malt. The beer is smooth and malty, with hints of marshmallow and apricot. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Geographical Evolution by Sir Archibald Geikie – At the beginning of this essay, Geikie writes, “From the geographical point of view… we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.” In this respect, Mawson ranks very highly among the great Antarctic explorers.

Questions of the week: As great a story as it is, is it even possible that the information gathered by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was worth the human suffering and death?


Scoundrel Worship

This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle

It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.

If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.

But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.

What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”

Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.

Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.

Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”

Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?


To Be Disliked

This is the twenty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIV: On the Sublime, The French Revolution, Etc., Edmund Burke

One can imagine, hopefully without much effort, that some people actually read this blog. Of those people, there may be a subset who hold the author in such high regard (as regards his taste in suds) that they reckon that a well-reviewed beer on this site is worth a try. This is probably the chief value of reviews, be they reviews of books, theater, or restaurants: the opinions of others can help us choose.

Likewise the opinions of others about other people help us decide with whom to associate. The expression “any friend of Eddy is a friend of mine” exemplifies this notion; the speaker holds Eddy’s choice of company in such high regard that anybody worthy of his friendship is worthy also of the speaker’s. The reverse is also commonly true. Guilt by association is a real phenomenon; “any friend of Eddy must be avoided because Eddy is a bad guy with bad taste.”

Occasionally, however, negative reviews have the opposite of the expected effect. To be despised by certain people is often regarded as a sort of endorsement. Imagine, for example, a politician who is decried by the grand wizard (or whatever silly title he holds) of the KKK. At least some people would regard that as a glowing (if unintentional) endorsement.

When certain of Edmund Burke’s political adversaries attacked his government pension, he took the position that it was an honor to be reviled by such men. “I confess it does kindle, in my nearly extinguished feelings, a very vivid satisfaction to be so attacked and so commended.”

So whether you try the beers that I review positively because you trust my taste, or you try the beers that I hate because I must be wrong, cheers!

Beer of the week: Shiner Bock – This is a reliable go-to lager. It pours clear and orange-brown. It’s got bread notes throughout but not as much flavor or mouthfeel as may be expected from the look of it. It’s a solid porch beer, but nothing special.

Reading of the week: A Letter to a Noble Lord by Edmund Burke – Burke’s detractors gave him an excellent opportunity to both belittle them and to commend himself. And boy, he did not let that opportunity go to waste.

Question for the week: Is there anybody of whom you think so little that you reflexively adopt the opposite of all of his judgments?


Spanish Haarlem

This is the nineteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IXX: Faust Egmont, Etc., Goethe, Doctor Faustus, Marlow

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In that one sentence, the framers memorialized several of the “inalienable rights” central to the premise of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation. Yet, despite how concise the amendment is, people seem constantly to misapprehend its significance. Here are a couple of critical points where people are often mistaken.

1. The amendment only applies to government action. People constantly confuse their right to free speech with a right to be free from the private consequences of that speech. A speech code by a company or private school is not subject to First Amendment analysis. Likewise, a private club may have religious requirements that a government actor may not.

2. That doesn’t mean that other laws do not matter. Some people on the internet hold the idea that “the First Amendment stops the government from infringing on your free speech, but it doesn’t stop me from punching you in the mouth.” Although that statement is technically accurate, punching somebody in the mouth violates laws independent of the First Amendment. Additionally, civil rights laws, government licensing requirements, and so forth may create obligations for private individuals or companies not to discriminate based on the exercise of certain First Amendment rights.

3. The amendment applies to all government action, not just the federal government. The plain of the first amendment states that “Congress shall pass no law…”; it does not mention state governments.  However, a long series of Supreme Court cases has established that the First Amendment (and most of the rest of the Bill of Rights) applies to state action through the “incorporation doctrine”. Even so, the First Amendment is probably redundant in most cases. Each state has its own constitution, and each state constitution includes free speech clause. The New York Court of Appeals, for example, has held that the free speech clause of the New York Constitution provides a greater level of protection than the First Amendment.

4. “Speech” consists of a lot more than just talking. Supreme Court cases have held that the First Amendment’s speech clause protects “expressive conduct.” That can mean a wide range of actions, including burning the American flag, nude dancing, remaining silent, or cross burning.

5. The amendment is especially important because it protects those without political clout. As a practical matter, no government would ever need to be restrained from punishing pro-government speech. Likewise, statements that everybody agrees with are under no threat of suppression. It is the provocative, the unpopular, the revolutionary that needs to be protected. Minority religious groups and others who are heterodox in the myriad ways that people may stray from conventional norms are the people who have the most to fear from popular government, and the most need for an amendment that protects, above all, the freedom of the mind.

Beer of the week: Primus – This week’s reading is set in what is now Belgium, with the principle action taking place in Brussels. So despite the constant references to “Netherlands” and “Netherlanders”, the play is best paired with Belgian beer.  Primus is a “premium lager” from Haacht Brewery in Flanders, Belgium. It is a standard European lager; it looks good, smells good, and tastes good. It is a well-balanced, if unexceptional, beer.

Reading of the week: Egmont by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – In this scene, we learn that the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba, “published a decree, by which two or three, found conversing together in the streets, are without trial, declared guilty of high treason.” He also prohibited discussion on affairs of state and made criticism of the government a capital offense.

Question for the week: How many rights are in the First Amendment?


I Don’t Know You

This is the sixteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVI: The Thousand and One Nights

Self-awareness is an invaluable trait. To be virtuous generally is undoubtedly good, but to be so without recognizing and understanding one’s own virtues and failings is stunting. How can one ever hope to improve, or even maintain one’s virtue, without first being aware of oneself?

Consider, for example, the barber of Bagdad from The Thousand and One Nights. The barber, in his own narrative about himself, tells the Caliph that that he is known as “the silent sheik” because, despite his immense learning, he is sparse of speech. He then, with little prompting from the Caliph, volunteers to tell six stories, one about each of his six brothers.

By the end of his lengthy recitations, everybody who’d heard him is “convinced of his impertinence and loquacity.” Although the barber claims to be reserved in speech and action, it proves not to be so.

That misapprehension about his own qualities distracts from the reality that he is actually excellent at what he does. As a “barber surgeon”, he is shown to be quite competent. The barber’s tale appears in the midst of a series of stories about a hunchback who has choked on a fishbone and is thought to be dead by everybody who comes across his body. But the barber, talented as he is, skillfully uses ointments and tools to save the hunchback’s life.

If he had a better sense of his own virtues and failings, the barber would be a better man, precisely because he would know better in what ways he could improve. Instead of coming away as a hero for saving the hunchback’s life, we see the barber is a fool for not understanding himself.

Beer of the week: Lech Premium – This Polish lager is pale gold, with minimal white foam. There is something distinctly different between European macrobrews and American macros. The seem more malty and rounded. Although this particular beer is not especially good, it is certainly serviceable. And, in my opinion, better than equivalent American beers.

Reading of the week: The Barber’s Tale of Himself from The Thousand and One Nights – Within the overall frame story of Shahrazad telling tales to keep the king from killing her, there are several stories within other stories. The barber of Bagdad appears in, and then narrates sub-stories to, the story of the hunchback. This is the part where he introduces himself and sets up his brother’s tales.

Questions for the week: Is it possible to be aware of one’s own lack of self-awareness? Or is that a paradox? In what field or characteristic have you badly misjudged your own capacity?


Donne and Done

This is the fifteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XV: Pilgrim’s Progress, Donne & Herbert, Bunyan, Walton

In his youth, the poet John Donne had a motto: “How much shall I be changed, before I am changed!” Of course, he was right. As the ancient saying goes, change is the only constant, and humans prove no exception to that rule. Even how we react to change changes over time.

“Variable, and therfore miserable condition of Man;” Donne writes in his Meditation I. He goes on to lament that despite our rigorous efforts to maintain our health, “a Sicknes unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiositie; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroyes us in an instant.”

Yet, when Donne faced his terminal illness, he embraced the final change. Rather than the careful study of health by means of deliberation “upon [his] meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises,” as described in Meditation I, Donne more or less abandoned such attempts to remain healthy and alive. He followed through on about half of the regimen prescribed by his doctor, but only did that much for the doctor’s sake. He swore that he would take no more medicine, even “upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life.”

But it is not very surprising to see a change from fearing death to embracing it. Especially in a man who experienced at various times deep depressions and religious ecstasies. One who went from being a penniless love poet to being a prominent Anglican preacher. How much he changed before he changed!

IMG_0165
Beer of the week: Staropramen Premium- Some things do not seem to change. The Staropramen brand has been registered for over a hundred years, and brewing in what is now the Czech Republic has been going on for ten times that long. This is a classic Czech pilsner. It is clear and golden. The aroma is a bit of bread with a bit of those traditional hops. Like the smell, the taste is very well balanced between the malt and hops. This is, simply, an exemplar of the style.

Reading for the week: The Life of Dr. Donne by Izaak Walton – Izaak Walton is best known for The Compleat Angler, a meditation on the art of fishing. He also wrote some biography, primarily of fellow anglers, including his friend John Donne. This excerpt describes Donne’s preparation for his final change.

Question for the week: Like everything else, tastes change. How has your taste for beer changed since your first brew?


Tint in Translation

This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns

One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.

The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.

In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)

In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.

This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:

“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”

Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:

“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”

And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.


Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.

Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.

Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?


Lunar New Year’s Resolution

This is the first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume I: Franklin, Woolman, Penn

Happy (Lunar) New Year! For those of us who are bad at planning ahead and/or following through on goals, Lunar New Year presents an excellent second chance at a meaningful resolution. Did you forget to pick a New Year’s resolution before midnight? Have you already thrown in the towel on your resolution a month and a half into 2018? Well Lunar New Year is here, so give that resolution another go.

Nearly two years ago, I received a set of The Harvard Classics as a gift. I have not, however, made much use of them since. To be sure, several readings on this blog have come from that set, but there are certainly volumes that I haven’t even cracked. So my (Lunar) resolution for the blog is to take a reading from each volume of The Harvard Classics for the rest of the year. Because a Lunar Year is just over 50 weeks, and The Harvard Classics has 51 volumes, I should finish just in time to pick a New New Year’s Resolution.

It just so happens that the first volume of The Harvard Classics has already provided readings for this blog: from William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The only other work in Volume I is The Journal of John Woolman, an excellent place to begin thinking about how to make the most of a new year. Woolman was obsessed (that just may be the best word for it) with the simplicity and cleanliness. As a Quaker, simplicity was not just a personal goal, but a tenant of his faith. He refused to eat or drink from silver vessels, a decision precipitated by a fever dream in which he saw slaves working in a mine, cursing the name of Christ and the greedy Christians who would enslave their fellow men and put them to such hard labor for the sake of something as unnecessary as gems or precious metals. He also eschewed dyed fabric, which he also regarded as a superfluity. Although that level of simplicity may seem a bit extreme, he reasoned that “if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.” Why should we clutter our lives with unnecessary objects and expenses, when we could put our energies toward living a more tidy and ordered life?

So here’s to a simpler, cleaner New Year!

Beer of the week: Fat Alberta – Woolman would not have much good for a beer this complex.  This is an imperial stout from Throwback Brewery with peanuts and cocoa. With that in mind, I was expecting something more like a chocolate peanut butter cup. But peanut butter cup flavored it is not. Fat Alberta pours with big bubbles and lots of sticky head. On the nose is dark chocolate, but there is not a super strong aroma. The first sip is quite bitter, like eating baking cocoa. The dark malt flavors are very strong, which covers the 10% alcohol. After the initial shock of having a bitter rather than sweet beer, I noticed a bit of coffee and a hint of peanut (or was that the power of suggestion from the label?) The alcohol makes itself known in the end and the bitter cocoa hangs on the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: The Journal of John Woolman – This reading is actually the very last entry in Woolman’s journal, written just a month before his death of smallpox. He was, at the time, touring England, visiting Quaker meeting-houses throughout the country and preaching.

Question for the week: Now that you are aware of your second chance at a New Year’s Resolution, what do you resolve?


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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?