a day’s reading

I suppose that my reading, like my philosophy, is eclectic. At first I was going to say that it’s not eclectic, but when I looked up eclectic I changed my mind:

1: selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles; 2: composed of elements drawn from various sources; also: heterogeneous

Sure: what appears to be best.

If you visit my reading stack at Goodreads.com you’ll see that I’ve got about a dozen books on the go. This accurately reflects the state of the table near the chair in the living-room where I do most of my reading, although on any given day I read from about four books, and usually the same ones from day to day, only shifting which ones slowly as my interest moves. Yesterday’s session had me:

  • reading&#151and finishing—The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
  • reading aloud to Kimmie another installment of The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
  • reading pages 375–382 of A Study of History, volume 2, by Arnold J. Toynbee
  • reading pages 126–134 of The Ages of Gold by Timothy Green

Why these books in particular?

First, I always have some work of fiction or other creative writing on the go. When I discovered, by reading a review in Biblical Archaeology Review, that Crumb had done a version of Genesis, I had to get it. I’m glad I did, although I found his straight treatment of the biblical book tame compared to his usually wild and ribald satire. He himself says that he regarded the project as a straight illustration job, and in that he succeeded. But I kind of got the feeling that he was drawing, so to speak, with one hand tied behind his back.

The Mayor of Casterbridge was Kimmie’s choice. She likes me to read to her, and every once in a while we actually make time to do this. She had put this book on her bedside table after I’d recommended it as a good, worthwhile, literary read, but had not got round to reading it on her own. So we’re doing it this way, and we’re almost done. After each installment Kimmie says something like, “Wow, what a good book!”

A Study of History is a work I’m reading for more than one reason. I’d read about Toynbee’s work years ago, and am now myself at work on an epic set in the ancient past. At some point I became interested in the question of how history unfolds generally, beyond the issue of what happened in this or that specific time and place. Reading Joseph Campbell had got me interested in history as a flow of ideas or spiritual ferments: the symbols and images that have ignited human passion and thereby caused those events in specific times and places. Campbell had been inspired by reading Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, which I tried reading first. I made it maybe a quarter way through a library copy of volume 1. (Reading library books doesn’t really work for me due to my slow pace and the fact that I like to read with a highlighter; I’ve since bought my own copies of Spengler’s books.) In 2007 I decided to give Toynbee a try, and bought a used boxed set of the 2-volume abridgement of his opus edited by D. C. Somervell.

I was captivated. Toynbee, drawing on the entire tapestry of global human history from remotest antiquity up the present (he started writing in 1932 or so), concluded that the true unit of history was not the nation or state but the civilization, of which he counted about 21 (give or take) known to us since the dawn of records. Civilizations go through stages analogous to the life-cycle of an organism, with sections of each society acting in characteristic ways to bring about the changes. The civilization in which I sit as I type these words Toynbee calls Western Christendom.

When, later in 2007, in my study of literary genres, I read The Epic Cosmos edited by Larry Allums, I was excited by its contention that the epic genre is fundamentally about the birth and transformation of societies—of civilizations. It was probably then that I decided that I wanted to read all of Toynbee’s work, and not just its abridged version. So I started searching for the old Oxford University Press paperbacks online, and have so far accumulated 5 of them. Here in volume 2 he is still discussing the topic “The Geneses of Civilizations”. (Very briefly, a civilization is born when a primitive society, of which there have been many in the history of humanity, numbering probably in the thousands, and which by definition is simple and static, becomes subjected to stress of one kind or another. The stress, which can be of more than one kind, when it is in a certain range of intensity, elicits the creative energies of people to respond, and when they do so successfully a civilization is born.) Toynbee looks at historical events and sees deeper forces at work; I love this way of seeing.

As for The Ages of Gold, which I first heard about by reading an online article by Adrian Ash of BullionVault.com, reading this also serves a twofold purpose. My primary aim is to learn more about finance and economics, in particular about the role of precious metals in these. I’ve studied these topics fairly consistently for the past 17 years or so, and I am persuaded that we are living through the latest and largest episode of the destruction of so-called fiat currencies—paper money. The first paper-currency bust happened in China in the 8th century AD, not long after they invented paper. Since then the cyclic drama of switching from metallic money (gold and silver coins), to paper that represents the coins, to paper that no longer represents the coins, to the collapse of paper money in hyperinflation, has played out many times. It always ends in disaster, grief, and social upheaval. We’re seeing it play out around us right now, worldwide. I wanted to learn more about the history of gold as a commodity and as a currency, and I appreciated another book of Timothy Green’s, The New World of Gold, so I had no problem ordering this book online from its corporate publisher, GFMS Limited, a precious-metals consultancy.

My other reason is that the ancient history of gold casts an interesting light on the period of my epic. Money then as now was a key motivator in the world. The words of Deep Throat would have been understood perfectly well back then: “Follow the money.”

There you have it: a snapshot of my reading period.

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