“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…

‘Life Is a Dream’, P. Calderón de la Barca

For there is such a pleasure in complaining
That a philosopher I’ve heard maintaining
One ought to seek a sorrow and be vain of it,
In order to be privileged to complain of it.

I recently got around to trying what Calderón de la Barca’s writing was like, and I decided to go with ‘Life Is a Dream’ as the first choice. I was a bit confused by the translation at times for unlike the verse above, some of the text seems to have a very difficult pause in it. I am unsure whether this was part of the original or a necessity of the translation, but it did manage to confuse me every now and then.

In this world’s uncertain gleam,
That to live is but to dream:
Man dreams what he is, and wakes
Only when upon him breaks
Death’s mysterious morning beam.

However, this was a very minor fault compared to the rather interesting plot that I did enjoy. After all, fate and predetermination — how could one not enjoy something with as clever a topic as that.

So, read it: but preferably in Spanish to avoid translations, and to get closer to the originals.

What is life?
A thing that seems,
A mirage that falsely gleams,
Phantom joy, delusive rest,
Since is life a dream at best,
And even dreams themselves are dreams.