Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Interesting books

Every November, a few weeks after the Frankfurt book fair, Mladinska knjiga organizes a small fair called “Frankfurt after Frankfurt”, showing a small selection of recently published books. I went to see it a few days ago, and noticed a few interesting books:

  • Patrick J. Geary: The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton UP, 2003.

    Nowadays we are often inclined to think that this or that specific present-day European nation originated in this or that set of early medieval tribes/peoples/etc. This book argues that this is a very inaccurate view that has more to do with nationalist romanticism than with historical fact. I have already wondered occasionally if our views on national origins in the middle ages aren't a little oversimplified, and this looks like just the book I should read to learn more about this subject.

  • Ray Villard, Lynette R. Cook: Infinite Worlds: An Illustrated Voyage to Planets beyond Our Sun. University of California Press, 2005.

    A nice illustrated book (on good heavy paper) on the subject of planets outside our solar system. Several such planets have been discovered in recent years. There are several fascinating illustrations showing what the view from the surface of some of these planets might look like.

  • Kay Slocum: Medieval Civilisation. Laurence King Publishing, 2005.

    This is basically a college textbook on medieval history. It looks interesting, thorough, and well organized. I wonder if it's appropriate for me to read college-level textbooks in fields where I am a complete layman, but the introduction of this book does seem to suggest that the book could be interesting for a lay reader as well. I wasn't terribly keen on medieval history in secondary school, and so I've forgotten much of what I had learnt at the time; I often toy with the idea of reading some introduction to this period.

  • Wieland Schmied: Hundertwasser. Taschen, 2005.

    A handsome book about Hundertwasser's life and work, with many illustrations. As a bonus, the price seems remarkably low for a coffee-table book (it's true that it isn't as large as many coffee-table books, however). I like Hundertwasser's wacky, variegated style, and it would be nice to have a book about him. However, on the other hand, I am of course aware that I am a pathetic philistine with absolutely no understanding of art, and so I always feel pangs of remorse after I buy any book about art: should I really own such a book? Is it not mere vanity, mere pretentiousness, for a person such as me to buy a book such as this? Wouldn't it be better to leave the book alone, to be bought by somebody who will be able to appreciate its artistic value, while I ought to save my money for some book that will not go above my head?

    Incidentally, while we're on the subject of Hundertwasser, Taschen also published a Catalogue Raisonné of Hunderwasser's work, also edited by Schmied, 2 vols., 1792 pages, sold on Amazon for the princely sum of $750 :-)

  • They also had a few books from the Clay Sanskrit Library, a series of bilingual editions of classical Indian texts (Sanskrit (transliterated into the Latin alphabet) on the left, English translation on the right) — i.e. a similar concept as the Loeb Classical Library, and indeed the books are exactly the same size. I'm not sure if I'm going to be buying any of these or not. I'm afraid that Indian literary tradition will be too foreign to me, and therefore these books will be too hard to read. Besides, they don't seem to contain much in the way of notes or commentaries. And they are being published at too quick a pace — I can barely keep up with I Tatti Renaissance Library's three or four volumes per year, but the Clay Sanskrit Library means to publish 100 volumes within five years (and indeed have already published 18 volumes this year). This will include a complete Ramayana in 8 volumes and the Mahabharata in 32 volumes (incidentally, public-domain translations of both are available on the wonderful sacred-texts.com web site). The CSL Ramayana is based on the Princeton University Press translation by Robert Goldman et al.

  • Steven Roger Fischer: A History of Reading. Reaktion Books, 2004.

    An interesting book in a curiously tall format. This is the last part of a trilogy which includes A History of Writing and A History of Language by the same author.

  • Luigi Albertini: The Origins of the War of 1914. Enigma Books, 2005.

    A massive three-volume study of the origins of the First World War, reprinted from the original edition (Oxford University Press, 1952–57), which is now scarce and expensive. Albertini lived early enough that he was able to personally interview some of the people involved in the events of 1914. I heard about his work in David Fromkin's excellent book about the same subject, Europe's Last Summer. I'm not entirely sure if I want to read a 2280-page study of the origins of WW1, but given Amazon's massive discount (the entire three-volume set would cost $60 and would ship as a single item), I am sorely tempted.

  • Gavriel D. Rosenfeld: The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism. Cambridge UP, 2005.

    Quite a few works of fiction (books, movies, etc.) are set in an alternative history in which Hitler's Germany won the Second World War (e.g. Robert Harris' Fatherland, which I read this summer). This book is a study of these alternative histories. It certainly sounds like an intriguing subject, and I'm amazed that a 536-page hardcover from Cambridge UP sells for a mere $20 from amazon.

I'm not sure which, if any, of these books I'll eventually get around to buying and reading, but it's nice to be at least aware of their existence. It makes me feel that my trip to the fair has not been in vain.


Anonymous Katra said...

Hi there ill-advised!

First I have to thank you for leaving such nice comment on my blog yesterday. Thanks! I suspect you are Slovene, but just in case I will write in English.
Wow, you really like books or should I say you like books that make your mind churn. You could probably see when you have read my blog that I’m dealing with some stuff right now and your comment made me laugh (yeah, I like J.R.R. Tolkien too) and I appreciate that.
I guess you study either Germanic languages or history, which it is I can’t really tell maybe it is even history of Germanic languages… it is a farfetched thought, but maybe I am close.
Well what I am really writing about is that I have a question for you, you see until couple of years ago I didn’t used to read, well I didn’t used to like reading that is and up to this point fantasy books including J.R.R. Tolkien gave me joy in reading back, but now I feel like I need to take a new step in a new direction. This summer I read Anne Delbee’s biography of Camille Claudel, which was quite heavy to read but it captivated me and now I would like to start reading things that would impact me as much as that story did.
So my question for you is: What is your all time favourite book to digest?

My greetings, Katra!

Friday, December 09, 2005 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thank you for your wonderful comment! I'm glad to hear that my comment on your blog made you laugh. First of all, you're right about me being Slovene, the reason why I post in English most of the time is just to practice it a bit and in the hope that some random visitor sent here by the search engines might possibly find something interesting here. As for my field of study, you are wide off the mark indeed :) — it's computer science. I wouldn't mind studying history, but my interest in history is very picky in character — I am interested in some parts of history but very strongly uninterested in many others, but if I wanted to study history, I probably wouldn't have much of a choice but to take it all. It's true that my interests in history are generally broadening — I'm interested in several things now that I wasn't interested in ten or even just five years ago — but they still remain relatively narrow. Besides, if I wanted to study history, I would have to apply myself with the sort of persistence and discipline that might just take all the fun out of it. Over and over again do I find that I have the mind of a dilettante rather than that of an earnest student. As for languages, they're one of those many subjects that fascinate me at a distance but bore me when I see the nitty-gritty details. True linguists, of course, are just the other way around — hair-splitting pedants who thrive on details. Besides, I was such an abysmal failure at learning German that I can't help but conclude that I'm simply not talented for languages (the fact that I managed to learn English reasonably well with admittedly quite moderate efforts is a never-ending source of surprise to me), and it would be a folly if I attempted to study linguistics.

It's hard for me to pick just one all-time favourite book, so I'll list several and hope that you might find some interesting suggestions among them.

You might want to give some of the classics a try; there's plenty to digest there, I guess, though I suspect that I rarely read them carefully enough. I rather enjoyed the Divine Commedy; it's a magnificent structure and a fascinating look at the medieval world-view. Or maybe Faust; the first part was very pleasant; as for the second part, I must admit that I couldn't make either heads or tails of it. I guess I'll have to try re-reading it some time.

Or you might try some of the great Realist novels. There is often so much wealth in those books — the authors were really able to take their time to introduce a number of characters, episodes, ruminations, etc., etc. War and Peace is one of my favourites; it felt like a galaxy, a whole new would that you can enter and spend quite some time in. The Brothers Karamazov are also pleasant; with Dostoevsky you can always count on some philosophical discussions or something of that sort, and in addition to that he is quite capable of writing a story that grabs you and makes you unable to put down the book. A less well known author from that period, but very pleasant to read and a great favourite of mine, is Eça de Queiros; I particularly recommend his The Maias.

Some other novels that made a great impression on me: Ippolito Nievo's Pisana (LJ, CZ 1962), Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy (the first part has just recently been translated into Slovenian as well), and The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić. And a shorter one that is just plain touchingly beautiful: Daphnis and Chloe by Longus (Dafnis in Hloa, tr. Bradač, 1952).

I also very strongly recommend Chateaubriand's memoirs (Spomini z onkraj groba, LJ, MK 1989; unfortunately it's a translation of only about 10% of the full text, but I was enormously impressed by this book, and since I can't read French I'll just have to make do with this partial translation).

If I absolutely had to choose just one book to digest, I'd probably choose a book of poems, because that is likely to give you much material to digest. Maybe you could try some wide-ranging anthology and see what suits you best. Marjan Strojan: Antologija angleške poezije, 1997; The Oxford Book of English Verse; as for individual poets, my personal favourites are probably Lermontov (Izbrano delo, tr. Mile Klopčič, 1961), Byron, John Donne, and Menart. I also recommend Villon (Zbrano delo, tr. Menart, 1987).

I'm not terribly fond of philosophy, but I might suggest Seneca's epistles (Pisma prijatelju, 1966). I find that I like stoicism, although I sometimes wonder if Seneca is quite sincere about it. The Presocratics (Anton Sovre: Predsokratiki, 1946) might also be interesting to digest; it's a book full of delightfully bizare speculation.

Or perhaps you'd prefer some nonfiction. I very strongly recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Also: Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Mesto v zgodovini, DZS 1969); Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct; Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought.

If you like history, I recommend Edward Gibbon's monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. One of the greatest masters of English prose style, he can be your faithful and delightful companion for months on end.

Friday, December 09, 2005 11:17:00 PM  

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