Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Britannica Great Books reviewed

According to, Mark Twain did say that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read. As far as it goes it captures the feeling of many of us: we have the certainty down there that if somehow we read the classics our lives & understanding would be enriched. Unfortunately the second part is also very true: not only most of us haven't in reality read those books, but in cases we have actively avoided them. Don't know the reason and don't care much for it. What I did care for is that I did not want to be lumped with the rest, so I decided to actually read the books and be the one who could, admittedly selfishly, raise his hand and say: I have.

Now, Twain's definition doesn't address actual titles, but there is no shortage of lists on what one should read. I decided early on on the Britannica Great Books because I happened to have a set handy.

The Britannica Great Books is a set of the greatest works of literature, philosophy, science, politics and religion in the western world as considered by the editors. There have been two editions of the set. The 1952 edition has 54 tomes and goes from Homer to William James and Freud while the 1990 edition does some reshuffling and expands the selection to include 20th century authors in six extra tomes. I'll center what follows on the 1980 reissue of the first edition.

The volumes themselves are all hardcover and standardized in height and length. For the more voluminous authors (Aristotle, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Gibbon) their works are divided in two volumes. The longest volume is around 800 pages.  The spines are color-coded according to the nature of the works, such as red for philosophy & religion or green for science. This is a deluxe set and quite handsome as an object. Unlike others in the category, the covers and spines can withstand regular use without turning unsightly.

The pages on all volumes is pleasant cream-colored. Most of text is densely arranged in two columns, though there are some exceptions (eg Paradise Lost). In the case of Chaucer the Middle-English original text is presented on the even pages (left side) and in modern English on the odd pages, in Loeb classical library fashion, for easy comparison. The margins are slim which forestall any but the most concise, in-page  reader annotations (not that I'd recommend you doing that).

All authors have a brief biographical overview. All volumes have table of contents as well.

Most of the volumes are devoid of footnotes, endnotes or clarifying explanations. Those that do have, such as Aquinas and Gibbon are more focused on references for research purposes than on clarification. Part of the philosophy of this set, traced back to John Erskine, is that all the works were originally intended for the layperson; thus, they are accessible to modern audiences.

The other important aspect of the set's philosophy, put forth in the first volume, The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins, is that each new author is acquainted with the previous ones and builds upon their themes, ideas and viewpoints in an evolving conversation through time.  In the preface to this volume he makes an apology in the name of the editors as to why for the existence of the set, the general guidelines of construction and title inclusion.  He readily acknowledges that list of works might not include everyone's favorite books.  Not all the works of a given author are included. For instance, just by looking there's no way for Freud's complete works to be fitted into one or two volumes, or have Dostoyevsky collection of novels gathered and still keep a manageable set. Hutchins also goes on to say that some long dry passages within the works are present: better that than risking editorializing with scissors at hand. The rest of the volume is an exposition of liberal education and how it is needed for the democratic ideal. This part reflect the Cold War period in which it was written, but even if the circumstances are no longer what they used to, the underlying aspirations still ring true. Reading now, decades into the future, one gets a sense of shame for the Editors' ideal having not yet been realized. If anything, the challenge is even more daunting than when the set was conceived considering the current state of education.

On brighter notes the Great Conversation aspect becomes clear in the second & third volumes: the Syntopicon. These contain a collection of the 102 most important ideas present in the Conversation according to the editors. Each idea is presented with an essay by philosopher Mortimer J Adler. These essays are just a bit steep, but give the lay of the land for the idea and  once one has put his or her mind to it are gems in themselves.  After each essay, the idea is minutely dissected into its different relevant topics (actually the topics form the idea, not the other way around). Finally, each of these topics are referenced to all its occurrences within the set, making the Conversation palpable. Nowadays you can get the works that comprise that Great Books separately one way or another, but not the Syntopicon, which thus makes it the most valuable piece of the set. It is an unparalleled tool for research!

Now, this is not the only set with similar aims. The Harvard Classics (HC) predate the Great Books by some forty years and came into being when its editor, Dr Eliot, was asked to make good on his assertion that a liberal education could be obtained by a 3-5 foot shelf of (well-chosen) books.  To bring forth more of the characteristics of The Great Books, it warrants a brief comparison with the HC set. In size, quite coincidentally it seems, the Great Books match Eliot's estimate of five feet. However, the pages of the HC are not as densely packed, resulting in less of the total works being included. Notable examples are just the first part of Don Quixote and only a few of Plutarch's Lives. The inclusion of a wider selection of material and categories in some degree offsets the partial works; though, with the benefit of hindsight the selection of the HC feels more idiosyncratic than that of the Great Books. There is substantial poetry and even travels, which the Great Books ignores. The HC has no qualms about including some Eastern works like and authors like the Thousand And One Nights and Confucius, as it is not  guided (or burdened if you will) by the Great Conversation concept. It's philosophy is just to give a chance for anyone to get 'cultivated'. It also has a disproportionate weighting of English and American writers as English language readers are its target audience. While Adler, on the side of the Great Books, makes no secret that proper great book reading is a difficult undertaking, the HC open themselves to any taker with no dire warnings about difficulty. In fact, a reading plan for children 12-18 is offered in the index tome. Some explanatory footnotes are offered here and there. In How to Read a Book, Adler doesn't resist the temptation to take a jab at the HC by pointing out their frequent un-greatness, fragmentary nature and unsystematicty.

Regarding systematicity, the editors of the Great Books offer an interesting 10 year reading plan. The set looks daunting, but having it broken down to such a long period makes it not only  achievable in its reading but exciting. For my part I've not resisted to get right into some texts and, while still striving for completion, have not followed any preset plan. The editors also agree with such course.

With only the raw texts and the barest sliver of commentary, are the Great Books readable? For the most part they are. However, a quiet place to read and concentration are even more of a prerequisite than for everyday novels; once one has gained traction, it is often the case that ease and comprehension set in.  One must be aware that there is a difference between taking the trouble to read them in the first place and really reading them in Adler mode (more on that on the next post). And it doesn't stop there; in The Great Ideas and probably elsewhere, Adler suggests that a round of discussion with other readers to top it off. I'm still dubious about the lack of explanatory comments. Some tomes, particularly those of ancient times, could profit from some guidance on obscure passages or persons. In the Letter to the Reader in the first volume, Hutchins asserts that the works become easier to read as one pushes forward. I can attest that at least for me it is the case: concepts become clearer, the themes more readily identifiable, the way of the Great Conversation brighter and, if one gives it an honest sustained effort, each new work easier to sort out (more on this on a future installment). Some of the texts will stay steep however, particularly the scientific ones, although I'm not really qualified to talk about those as of now, as I have not gotten into those yet (the one on conics by Apollonius of Perga looks really interesting though!). I suspect that is quite useless to read a couple few of these, such as Copernicus' Revolutions (The Book Nobody Read): they have a place in the set because they made an impact, but not because one can profit from them now. (Hutchins sternly warns against this viewpoint). For the rest of the tomes, in many cases, the most foreboding aspect is the double column layout.

In the end, I would recommend anyone who wants to align herself with the democratic ideal of the founding fathers and is really willing to get into them.

5 stars

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reading the OED book review

Personal accounts can offer a window into other people's passions. Part of the joy of reading nonfiction is that one gets to know about these very real experiences even if one doesn't share them. In Reading the OED Ammon Shea gives us an account of him reading every single word from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Alphabetically, each letter contains his observations on reading and owning dictionaries in general and the OED in particular, and a list of words starting with the letter in turn that for a number of reasons he finds notable, funny, unexplainable, etc.  Of both groups I stay with the anecdotal over the lists for the human element. My favorite parts were him reading in the basement of a college library and talking of mice and nonexistent rats, his views on the 'library people' and the prodigious amounts coffee he drinks which should deserve part of the credit for pulling the project through. The lists of words for their part never really caught on with me, but were not boring either. On the practical side I'm quite sure that I'll not be using any of them soon (except zugzwang which already is part of my vocabulary).

It is perhaps unavoidable to compare this one with AJ Jacobs' The Know it All in which the project was to read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica and relate what was like. Reading the OED doesn't capture Jacobs' charm and spontaneity, but there is something more endearing in Shea's exploit. Jacobs loves knowledge; Shea loves words and the dictionary, the medium itself. 

Comparing both accounts, Shea has the tougher bone. Part of the challenge of the OED's own physical being. It is large and heavy; the font small and the words dense; the citations abundant and in older English in large proportion.  Along the way Shea describes the various pains and aches he develops from reading too much. I feel amazed and slightly horrified at what he puts himself through; nonetheless, he loves every second of it.

I believe that Jacobs' project ultimately fails though because of its unsystematicity. He goes through the material alright but without an overarching plan for organization, use and retention.  Of course, had he done so, he'd probably still be at it and we wouldn't have his book. Shea on the other hand just wants to be delighted and share and by both counts he succeeds  (for my part I'm casting my lot with the Great Books of which we'll talk next time).

Would I recommend you go buy it? Can't really. For all its virtues it still is a niche account. His enthusiasm for dictionaries and words comes across, but didn't win me entirely over. I still find the whole project extraordinary.  Reading the OED has its place, but that would be after the The Know it All, or instead of, if you love words over just facts.

(I've decided to take up on one challenge Shea puts forth in this book, and do some stunt reporting of my own. We'll talk about that in a couple months' time)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Of Moves and Men part II: actually doing it

So much for the methods. Putting them to practice is the hardest part of the equation and surprisingly so. One thing is to know what is to be done and another to actually do it.

I'll go off a tangent now. I find that when I'm in the heat of the game sooner or later I revert or devolve to the very old habits that I want to supersede. My guess is that these habits have proved their worth by getting me to my present state of development; though I can clearly see that they impede my further growth; hence, my interest in this aspect of play and in these books.

If I have decided upon a method or system in a cool and reasoned manner, then I want to follow it as it appears to be the best course of action.  Following it in a slipshod way won't do and skipping it altogether is worse still. And this is not limited to chess alone as I find it also true for some other skills. Trying not to be cheesy about it, I see chess as a microcosm or lab where one can try out mental skills in a self-contained setting that can then be useful for everyday situations. In other words, if it works in chess, then it might be adapted to some other area. And what could this skills be? Memory, patience, imagination, visualization, discipline, willpower, self-regulation… an efficient zen-like state if that is not too much of an oxymoron.

Coming back full circle, the actual integration to self is the hard part. I don't know if this happens to you or if my case is better or worse than that of others but I do have a working hypothesis based, at this point, mainly on Kahnemann's ideas found in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. What I believe  is happening at this stage is that my System 1 is still is trigger happy and that I'm slowly adapting it by the application of System 2. The trouble arises from S1 wanting to shoot from the hip while S2 is too resource intensive to sustain for long.

Ease opposes change. From what I read, continued focused effort is, at the heart of it, the key. That is what training is all about. The best example integration of a system from the ground up that I've known about is that of Mystery from Neil Strauss' book The Game . First he deconstructed his approach to his problem and put it back again. Then, he tried it repeatedly again and again in rapid succession debriefing himself after each night on all encounters. Finally, he changed what had to be changed to get to his results. It is hard to find any room for improvement on the structure of his method. Let's see what he gets right:

  • Deep burning desire
  • Insights from experience
  • A flexible  method built from said insights
  • A fail fast approach
  • Debriefing
  • Willingness to try new things, integrate what works and let go what doesn't

All aspects are key as none can be let go and still have great results. The aspect that beckons me the most is the fail fast  practice. Lots of experience in a short time, isn't this how bacteria thrive when subject to novel attacks? It appears to me that this where my chess training sags. Experience is needed, but I don't play that often to fully sink in my own methods.  Maybe also more focused practice is needed, that is, not wasting time on unprofitable training. For instance, I've been reading Nimzowitsch's Chess Praxis and I feel it has helped me zilch (My System is more instructive and, yes, more fun).

The debriefing aspect on the other hand is close to what great (chess) teachers emphasize: go over your games. I have been so won over with this concept, that I built the negotiation debriefing script I posted some months ago based on this very idea . This is a tangible everyday result from my chess efforts.  It is hardly necessary to point out that the process became teachable.

So, if you believe  on a given system stick relentlessly to it until it is second nature (and then some more).

If you want to know more on effortful training I'm not yet done. I'll take a closer look on books that deal with these very matters in the near future.

(Mystery's own book, The Mystery Method, feels contrived to me and I think it could benefit from some editing and rewriting)