Thursday, January 25, 2018

My Favorite Books

My list of all time favorite books is below. I shared some of my thoughts on what went into this list here. This is a relatively short list. For every book on this list there are also many near misses. I have listed the below books in alphabetical order as I do not necessarily rank any one above any other one. I should note that I am using the term “book” loosely as I am going to include plays, novellas, etc. in my list. 

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope – I love Trollope. Several of his books are “near misses” and come close to being included in the list. For me, this particular novel represents a perfect combination of the author’s keen observations on people and his subtle but very effective humor. 

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker - I make reference to this book all the time. This is the author’s argument that over the course of history, violence has been declining and that the world is getting better in a lot of ways. This book want a long way to helping me organize my understanding of history, psychology, human rights, etc. It helped me to understand the world. 

The Plague by Albert Camus – I tend to like existentialist novels. This one is my favorite. The narrative is essentially a search for life’s meaning in a world of suffering. Helping others and alleviating suffering is presented as the answer. The book contains lots of interesting philosophy as well as meditations upon Christianity. These are all things that I love in a book. 

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan – This is a philosophy book that argues that reason and science are vital to humanity’s well being. It also examines rational thinking in detail. The work is full of valuable insight and wisdom. Sagan is clear about his views and what he agrees with and what he disagrees with. However, unlike more recent works by more  controversial and outspoken atheists  such as Richard Dawkins, Sagan takes a much less antagonistic attitude towards religion and towards those who disagree with him. This is another book that helped me to understand the world. 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick - The film Blade Runner is based on this book. However, though I think that the movie brilliant in its own right, it is a very different work and not something to compare to the novel. The theme of good verses evil is explored here a unique, profound and moving way. The novel is also full of other important and interesting observations about humanity and technology. The characters and the plot are also fascinating. 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë - I think that this work touches upon the duality between the masculine and the feminine in an aesthetically marvelous way. The story and the characters are sublime. The book packs an enormous emotional impact for me. 

Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare - This may be the most pleasant great work of literature ever written. It includes a wonderful story, wonderful characters, and imparts a wonderful atmosphere both when reading and or watching a performance. It includes all this while saying something important about the human condition. 

A Passage To India by E.M. Foster – Folks talk about how this book examines colonialism and the interaction of cultures in brilliant way. I agree that it does these things. I also think that the metaphysical and existentialist meditations in this novel are magnificent. All this combined with a great story and great characters make this one of my favorites. 

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence – I think that this is a brilliant story. I find that the portrayal of the book’s protagonist, Ursula Brangwen, to be one of the greatest character descriptions in literature. Her rebellion against convention and the constraints of society is portrayed in a very unique way. She is a magnificent literary creation whose inner transformation is a wonder to read about. The way in which Lawrence unifies Ursula’s journey of self - discovery with his philosophy is near perfect. 

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – This novel is many things, but one aspect of this book that attracts me a lot is the theme of an individual’s search for balance. This book passage that involves an attempted suicide that brings tears to my eyes every time that I read it. This is a marvelous story. 

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – I first read this book when I was in my early teens. At the time I found a lot to relate to in the book’s young protagonists. Now I am only a few years younger then Charles Halloway, the adult protagonist in the book. This all ties together in a special way for me, as book’s themes are closely intertwined with aging. The combination of these elements, and others, make this book very special for me.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Favorite Books may not be The Greatest Books

When I decided to post a list of my favorite books I first had to come up with the actual  list. As I began to think about the list I needed to ask myself if I thought that my favorite books were best books ever written. It turns out that the answer is no, my favorite books are not necessarily the greatest books.  I have different criteria between what I consider my favorites and what I consider the best.

My all time favorite books touch me in a particular way. They have had an impact upon me because I have unique experiences, opinions and feelings that others may or may not share. Thus, my favorite books have had a profound effect upon me but may or may not have such an effect upon others.

Furthermore, some of my favorite books also have flaws that are so significant that they are disqualified from being among the greatest ever written. Because of who I am these flaws do not prevent me from loving these books. Hermann Hesse’s works are a good example of this. Several of Hesse’s books are among my all time favorites. However, I recognize certain flaws in his novels that prevent me from considering among the all time best books ever written.  I believe that all the books that I will list among my favorites are great literature and/or philosophy. However, many just do not meet the criteria of all time greats. With all that, if I were to put together a list of all time best books, a few of my favorites would also be on that list.

There are also some books that seem monumentally important and universal to me, but that do not touch me in such a way that I can call them favorites. These works would be included on my list of best books however. For instance, some of the Shakespeare tragedies fall into this category. 

I should note that I am talking about lists that are the crème of the crop; lists that would include something like the ten best books ever written, or my ten favorite books.  If I were to make a list of the 100 greatest books ever written, many of my favorites would make that list. An expanded list of best 500 or best 1000 greatest books ever, would probably cover most of my favorites.

I was originally planning a separate post dedicated to what I think are the greatest books of all time. However, at least for now, I have abandoned this idea for several reasons.  First, I have not come close to reading all the books that a reasonable person might consider to be good candidates for this list. Secondly, a lot people who are a lot more knowledgeable and qualified then me have produced a large number of such lists. These lists are all over the Internet.

I wanted to differentiate between these two concepts before actually posting my list. I think that such a discussion is interesting enough in its own right that I decided to post a separate entry on this topic. I will shortly be posting my actual list.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad was originally published in 1900. It is the story of a young Englishman named Jim. The tale is narrated by Marlowe, the ship captain who also narrated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as other works by the author.

Jim is a young sailor who dreams of engaging in brave and heroic acts. After a short career at sea, he becomes the first officer on the passenger ship Patna. The vessel is transporting pilgrims on their journey to Mecca and is packed to the brim. When the ship collides with an unknown object, water rushes in, and it seems like sinking is imminent as an old bulkhead is put under great stress. The cowardly captain and most of the crew prepare to abandon the ship and passengers. At first, Jim scorns them but at the last minute he jumps into a lifeboat with the fleeing crew. In the aftermath of this, Jim’s merchant marine license is revoked, and he experiences an existentialist crisis as his illusion of himself as a brave adventurer has been shattered. 

For a time, Jim wanders from place to place all over the Pacific region. Eventually, Marlow and some other friends find him a place at a remote trading station in a fictional country called Patusan. There, Jim shows great courage and character. He sides with one faction in a multi-sided civil war, but he ultimately helps to bring peace and stability to the nation. He becomes a local hero and wise man. He is even attributed to have mystical powers. Further complications ensue when Patusan is invaded by brigands from the outside world. 

The novel is full of dense descriptions of people, nature and objects. I find the prose to be sublime. Marlowe provides a torrent of philosophical observations relating to life and human nature as well as Jim’s character in general. 

There seems to be a lot here about what is hidden and illusionary in the characters of people. In Jim, we see someone who has built up a self-image related to fantasies of romantic adventure. When that image is destroyed, he falls into a mental and moral crisis. Later, in Patusan, he rebuilds an image of himself. 

This dive into human character and psychology is complemented by the book’s descriptions. These play into the theme of illusions and under-the-surface psychology. In passage after passage, landscapes, nature and objects are described in detail. Often, lighting plays a big part of the descriptions. Unusual forms of illumination and tricks of light are often highlighted. Scenes are drawn in the moonlight, in twilight, in the mist, etc. Scenes described in unusual lighting conditions seem to be reflective of the hidden and hard-to-see aspects of people. 

In one remarkable passage, moonlight is described: 

“after we had watched the moon float away above the chasm between the hills like an ascending spirit out of a grave; its sheen descended, cold and pale, like the ghost of dead sunlight. There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery. It is to our sunshine, which— say what you like— is all we have to live by, what the echo is to the sound: misleading and confusing whether the note be mocking or sad. It robs all forms of matter— which, after all, is our domain— of their substance, and gives a sinister reality to shadows alone.” 

I think that the above prose is magnificent. I find that this passage can be read as an allegory about what lies underneath the typical human being. Just as the moonlight reveals things about reality that we do not usually see, the narrative reveals things about Jim, other characters and humanity that may not be apparent on the surface. Sometimes, what we see is misleading and confusing. Sometimes, it is mocking or sad. There may be a terrifying reality to our shadow selves. The novel is full of passages like the above.

At one point, a ship’s captain named Montague Brierly commits suicide when he comes to understand things about his own inner character. I get the sense that he saw into the “sinister reality” that the above passage attributes to shadows. 

There is also something else going on in this book. The actual narrator is not Marlow. Rather, it is an unknown man who Marlow is telling a story to. The nesting of the story is even deeper. Marlowe’s tale has many accounts of people relating their own stories. Thus, the story often consists of the unnamed narrator describing Marlow telling a story. The story Marlowe is telling is often about someone else telling a story. I think that this adds to the message that the nature of people is inscrutable. We seem to be seeing only a fictional version of people. The real self may be several layers down. 

This is a superb novel. It is full of wonderful prose and symbolism. It is deeply philosophical. It is a fascinating and unique character study. The book contains an interesting and engrossing story. I highly recommend this to folks who like philosophical character studies. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

6 Years Old!

Babbling Books is six years old today. In past years on my blogiversary I have extolled the virtues of the book blogger community. I will again acknowledge my fellow book bloggers.  The community is indeed the best part of book blogging. This community  is what has kept me blogging over the course of years. 

When I started blogging six years ago I wanted my site to be more then just book reviews. I wanted to explore history, social issues, politics, religion as well as a plethora of other topics and ideas.  I wanted to approach these concepts from a bookish point of view. I hope that to some extent I have succeeded. I try to tackle these topics both in my commentary on individual books as well as in standalone posts.  

In a perfect world I would blog more. I would like to put up more posts related to ideas, social issues and perhaps politics. Books and reading relate to all these things. Time constraints unfortunately limit me. With that, though I am not big on New Years Resolutions, I will endeavor to post more in the coming year. Of course, I also want to read more books. That, in the end needs to be my number one priority.

Many of my fellow bloggers have posted lists of their planed reads for the year. I also have a lot of tentative reading plans. There are so many great books waiting in the wings. There are so many fascinating topics to explore. Thus, the coming year promises to be great year for blogging. I hope that will be the case for all my blogger friends as well as for myself. 

Happy reading everybody!