“Whose entire body of work is worth reading?”

Reading Marginal Revolution brings up interesting questions every now and then. Tyler Cowen is a person with a very wide range of interests, and these are well reflected in the wide spectra of posts that can be found on MR. So, with interest I opened up a post with the same title as above, thinking: “What has Tyler written now?”

That original post can be found over here, ‘Whose entire body of work is worth reading?’. It might be interesting to acquaint oneself with what Mr Cowen has said for I think I wish to differ in my opinion.

Yes, I’ll grant that historians are an easy pick. Or, at least, an easier pick than any fiction writer. But there’s a reason for that and I am not entirely confident that the reason is that high quality history is always substantiated by top research. And, even if it is, it is not the research but the author’s readability which is the important part in reading a historical book. And, being very good at research means very little in immediate writing skills gains so there must be more to the puzzle.

My theory on the historians would be that historians who have the knack for writing come out better in the general readability of their tomes. If they know how to write well instinctively, they have an easier time writing for having to worry less about making the story into a single cohesive unit. And, yet, I would dare not name any names. I don’t think I am familiar enough with the works of any single historian to bring him/her out in full.

Overall, then, this question comes down to style for me. But, if I concentrate on the problem, is it possible that any writer has kept their style from the very beginning to the end without pause so that it is uniformly strong and infallible?

I don’t think so.

In effect, I would go so far as to say that all of the names that Mr Cowen brought up in his post are names that I would not dare mention. In which case, what names would I bring up?

That’s a trickier one to answer, partly because I feel like I would want to name a few people, but I am afraid that their originals read worse than the translations that I have read. It might be a fortuitous event that I’ve probably read Arthur C. Clarke most extensively, probably covering the majority of his published works, but even that list is a few titles short of a full collection. And no matter how good the ideas present in the books I’ve read, Mr Clarke has had a few weaker books.

Henryk Sienkiewicz would probably come second, and again the question of translations has to be present. Assuming that Sienkiewicz’s style in Polish is just as clear and strong as it was when I read it in English and Estonian, I would be happy to say that all of his work is worth reading. If, however, some parts of it were a fluke of chance or an edit of the translator, then maybe the reader has been deceived. [Note that a lot of the sentiment present in Mr Sienkiewicz’s works is something I might consider worthy of reading to understand the past rather than the present.]

Of other names, I would bet on Ryotaro Shiba. Again, I have only read him in translation, some of which was not the top quality work I was expecting, I do say myself, but I think that his style in the original is likely to be so much better. So, there’s another unsubstantiated claim that I cannot prove.

On the philosophers: why would I cross off Plato and the rest mentioned in Tyler’s post above?

I am not certain that their works carry the worth of reading throughout. The thoughts of philosophers naturally vary over time and space, and I would not find it difficult to believe that the heavy style we have attributed to Plato and Nietzsche is stronger in some of the books than in the others. And if that is the case, then with the style of the author faltering how can the author himself be consistently skillful?

Indeed, if I were to guess of a type of people who would have put down the most to paper that is all worth reading, I think I would lean towards a playwright or a poet. Maybe Pedro Calderón de la Barca is a good guess, but I’ve only read one title by him so I cannot comment in full. Yet, Calderón de la Barca sounded as if he had something to say. Likewise, I would probably prop J.R.R. Tolkien up there if only for all of his poems, although that is shirking the question slightly again…

So, those are the names that I would put forward. I didn’t think much on where to get them from, nor did I spend an inordinate amount of time on them, but I think that’s something for a start (I’d be interested to see what any of my readers say). I dare add that this is probably one of those questions which are better left unasked in general, although it is also always fun to throw names around and see which ones stay in the air. But, for now, I’ll keep to the poets…

Hope

What is hope? Where is hope? How can we create hope?

There is a song that I quite like which includes the lines:

Songs I have sung deep in the silence
Nobody finds hope in defiance

Now, I personally find these lines very intriguing because as far as I am concerned it is the exact opposite: hope is found in defiance. A Google search for “define hope” gave me a result as follows “A feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”. This is as I would have generally thought of “hope”, and I guess the general context for “hope” is that “I have a problem that needs to be solved, but I don’t know how to start. — I hope I can solve it.”

The other option, naturally, which might be a bit closer to my mind is that in a situation where there is no hope — no hope of being saved, no hope of surviving, no hope of external help — the only way to retain sanity is to still appear outwardly defiant, ready to defend oneself from the world.

But maybe this other option is the less used common sense way of reading hope? Could that be where I have gone wrong?

Is the more common sense way of looking at ‘hope’ the one where there is no threat? If this were the case, it would make sense that defiance would not work since this defiance could not be targeted at anything — and defiance without a target would be a useless way to express strength. In effect, that would be wastage.

However, as soon as I bring myself back to the side of hope where there is a defined reason that we would need hope for — say a threat that looms in the foreground. How could we possibly find hope *not* in defiance in a situation like this? The question here could also be ostensibly be phrased as: if one is not defiant, then how can one hope for a positive outcome?

So, in the end I wonder if the take I have on this is not the more common one — and the more reasonable one. But then again, I might have missed some feature of hope. If so, do not hesitate to bring it up!

Thus far though, if you need hope — do not surrender or give in. Problems need to be faced down and solved. Even the most difficult of questions can probably be reasoned in some way or form, but no good can come of just surrendering your position. Be certain of where you stand, and stand proud!

‘The Analects’, Confucius [Kong Fuzi]

For one word a man is often deemed to be wise, and for one word he is often deemed to be foolish. We ought to be careful indeed in what we say.

Since Confucius is so generally admired as a thinker, at some point my mind decided that it is only natural to read his writings (or rather the writings of his disciples about the principles advanced by the Master). I took it upon myself then to go through ‘The Analects’, and see what wisdom was hidden there.

Firstly, I’ll warn anyone out there to not use a copy of the book that is written using Wade-Giles. That was my main issue since any name I might have recognized in pinyin was utterly destroyed and annihilated with my mind trying to process whatever combination of Wade-Giles was put before me.

Secondly, go ahead and read the book. Whilst much of what is said about a “superior man” and a “benevolent man” is probably more difficult to adhere to these days, and a fair bit of what is said should be left up to varying interpretations (I am quite strongly opposed to the Master’s idea that all parents should be equally upheld without regard to their merits) there is also much that could be applied leading to a generally better… life.

The man, who in the view of gain, thinks of righteousness; who in the view of danger is prepared to give up his life; and who does not forget an old agreement however far back it extends — such a man may be reckoned a complete man.

[NB! To re-emphasize: If I am to reread this, I would make sure it is pinyin, and well paragraphed without dodgy line breaks or anything like that. Formatting makes *such* a difference.]

Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.

The Hannya Shingyo

I find that I enjoy listening to a chanting of the Hannya Shingyo. Sometimes as much that I half-consider going through the lines to memorize them — I believe that something in my mind says that chanting that sutra would be a perfect accompaniment to a walk of half an hour where I really do not want to take my player out.

And, yet, there the sutra remains: in that tab I opened a month or two ago. I see it there and think, ‘I should probably say something, post a few words.’ And now I am that far.

But why?

On that link in the beginning of this post is also a translation of the Hannya Shingyo. One of the pairs of lines reads “Form is precisely emptiness, Emptiness precisely form.” and despite the meaning moving on from there to its counterposition, I do like those two lines.

And I realize that more important than memorizing it would be to understand it.

‘Beyond Good and Evil’, F. Nietzche

We really ought to free ourselves from the misleading significance of words!

I was recently compelled into reading this work by Friedrich Nietzche. My previous contact with the said author had not extended much further than a few chapters in ‘Der Antichrist’ (and that in Estonian) but those few chapters I read I also enjoyed. This book was rather different — now, I am admittedly unsure whether this difference was due to the language, the quality of the translation, or the work itself.

What I do however know is that I didn’t enjoy it very much at all — most of it went rather slowly, and Nietzsche’s arrogance became too much for even me to bear. I am quite certain that if he truly was the only one to know everything and to be correct about everything, his need to belittle most everyone else could have been somewhat lesser.

Overall, there is not much else for me to add — some of the chapters (points, rather, maybe?) were enjoyable (these were few and far between) while most of it was just a dark dark land for me that I really didn’t look forward to but felt I had to just because it had been on my reading lists for ages. So, that’s that — and I am thinking of reading an English Antichrist just to see if I find the style and language as tiring as it was over here.

“I like man, and often think how I can still further advance him, and make him stronger, more evil, and more profound.” — “Stronger, more evil, and more profound?” I asked in horror. “Yes,” he said again, “stronger, more evil, and more profound; also more beautiful.” – and thereby the tempter-god smiled with his halcyon smile, as though he had just paid some charming compliment.

‘How to Run the World’, P. Khanna

“The post-Cold War era will be remembered for the rapid emergence of a postmodern Middle Ages — a world without any single power in control. The East will not replace the West, China will not replace America, the Pacific will not displace the Atlantic — all of these power centers and geographies will coexist in a hyper-complex ecosystem.”

I was just about to think whether to comment on Parag Khanna’s amazing book as well, and then decided for it until the memory of it is still fresh(er) in my memory… which admittedly would have actually meant yesterday, but oh well, stuff happens.

As it is, this just might be the best book on politics and governance I’ve read. (Notice I did not include economics in here but that is because most of the “economic” advice Mr Khanna offers is actually of the political nature, and can be considered to be more of that domain.) Ever? Yes, could be.

The reason why this book is so good is that the scope. It is magnificent. Mr Khanna has managed to consider aspects I had not even previously imagined, and seems to me (at least) to well carry the case that the governance of the modern (and future) world is far less in the hands of the governments than many people would like to believe.

Oh, wait, not the governments? Who else?? Well, as the arguments fly by, quite successfully, I might add, the case is built that NGO’s, generally rich people, and company’s are less encumbered by rules and bureaucratic nonsense than the actual governments. So, these institutions are able to do what the governments cannot — namely, they can make decisions, and they can approach problems from the only way that problems can actually be solved (that would be bottom up in case you were wondering, as opposed to the usual top down approach).

It sounded a bit off to me in the first few chapters but the evidence soon gathers that these same participants already put in far more than governments do (at least as far as results per spent time/unit-of-money/person are considered), and that they are potentially the ones that create policies which afterwards the governments can “implement”.

As it seems, global governance has something for all of us. So, take a look and see what you think of what Mr Khanna as written.

[Also, I managed to mark 50 quotes while going through this book on my Kindle. That’s far far more than I do with most books that deal with anything unless they run well into thousands, and this one packs well less than that.]

“The man tasked with bringing corporate ambitions and global ethics into harmony is John Ruggie… Ruggie takes a psychological approach to explaining the corporate citizenship life cycle: “First, they ignore the problem. Then they deny it. Eventually they pretend they’re doing something about it, and finally they comply. Ultimately, they do get there.””

“United as if … war”

The broadcasts of today’s Parliament enquiries on the BBC News network have left to me a sense of foreboding — for the words that the journalist used were that the Parliament was united as if a war had broken out.

Now, I am no judge to say what I think of the unity of the Parliament (and I certainly think it a lesser degree than if a war was declared on the United Kingdom) but I found that statement oddly disturbing.

Indeed, all the statements during the last few days have been made with references to “wars” and “warzones” that what are people supposed to expect — do the journalists truly expect that people are more satisfied if there’s a so-to-say higher cause that they can invoke ?

I cannot answer that question now, but I do know that I’d much prefer that people did not take it upon themselves to call upon “war” as rashly as they do; especially in this context. And also with no operational  carriers, except the to-be-refitted Illustrious until 2020… for this used to be a nation that thrived upon the seas…

As if News from a Theorem

The title of this entry is purposefully a bit more scientific (my first instinct was to write “mechanical” for some reason) than the content of the post, but it all has to do with a few good reasons that (very) accurately reflect the past days and what has happened during them.

Namely, for any fan of science-fiction and sir Arthur C. Clarke his book ‘The Last Theorem’ might ring a bell — especially given it was the last work by the renown author written in collaboration with Frederick Pohl. [Unfortunately, aside from my somewhat eccentric positive look on it most people have said it is not one of Clarke’s best works, but I would not resign ‘The Last Theorem’ that easily to the worst positions on ratings lists.] Be it as it may, what is speaks of is more important than the story of its creation : aside from the hint to the Last Theorem of Fermat, the book also considers some of the growing unrest in the world in its day and age (and provides a wonderful look into Sri Lanka which might be a reason I like it that much).

The “insights into the growing unrest” was the bit that I thought to explore though — I remember from reading it that most of the times when the book referred to any one of the characters turning the TV online or checking the news, the result they got from there was that there were more deaths, more accidents, more conflicts, in short : more bad news.

What has seemed to be happening over the last few weeks therefore restarted that button in my mind — every moment that I keep an eye on the BBC News bulletins they bring that same sense of “more and new catastrophes and violence” that was so prevalent in the description of politics in the aforementioned book.

So yes : the US debt crisis, UK economic downgrades, US AAA lost, riots throughout England, plummeting stock prices — all of these have served to remind me of that book, and of the continuous downward slide.

What is the significance of this ? I wouldn’t know in the slightest, except that it would be good to have news of some other sort than the summary of what’s going wrong.

And I guess that’s when I realized that all the short clips that I previously did not appreciate all that much : either CNN’s MainSail (which I used to watch in the good old times that CNN was easily accessible)  or BBC’s clips on Olympic (2012) contestants and the ‘Meet the Author’ are there to serve a purpose. Possibly, it is not meant that they are there to cheer the people up after another slide in the politics and economy section, but it is somewhat comforting to know that when most things are resigned to whatever fate can bring them, we’ve got a promising young swimmer in the UK or a great runner in…

… Does it matter “where”, as long as we have him ?

Narrowsightedness on Democracy

The case for democracy is a moral one, not an economic one; but if democracies can’t handle responsible governance, either on economic or more general policy issues, then governance will gradually become less democratic, and the moral case will make little difference.

The above quote is from a The Economist blog post and illustrates what I believe to be an extreme case of narrowsightedness. A quick Google search on “the case for democracy” brought up the following quote: “The moral case for democracy is based on the apparent degree of fairness that it offers…”

I would very much like to hear what the author of that blog post has to say on such apparent democracies like the United Kingdom, Spain, or similar countries, which are decried not to be democracies by their republican fanatics but which offer a degree of fairness that is comparable to “the greatest democracies” on Earth (or in a singular form, “the greatest democracy/country”, as the US politicians love to call their land). Comparable, I say, though it would not be wrong to call them fairer than the United States.

So, does the author actually mean something more in line with the so-to-say republican fanatics that we see all around the place these days, or does he also accept the possibility of a fair monarchy/autocracy (Singapore anyone?) which does provide an “apparent degree of fairness” and a far more effective political governance (though it would be fair to say that no democracy can or should be effectively governed given that means that debate is being smothered somewhere along the line)?

What is the worst about this approach, however, is that the author has refused to accept that the same moral values might exist in a non-democratic society if the tradition and principles for it were there. Fairness of people does not need to mean governance by people.