Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Long Break, in which There Were Books

It's been quite awhile dear readers, but I assure you much reading has gotten done in the meantime.

Since the last update, I've finished Modern Arabic Short Stories, which was a delight. There were certainly some stories in there that I think lost something in the translation: they felt stilted and used turns of phrase that seemed more English than anything. My brother got a bunch of Naguib Mahfouz books recently, who I realised was included in this collection with the story Zaabalawi. I was also delighted to find out that Bruce Robbins was interviewed on the Leonard Lopate show last month about Tayeb Salih (who contributed The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid to the collection), as part of a series on "Underappreciated Literature." It is a very enlightening interview, and portions of Salih's novel Season of Migration to the North are read. Listen up! It's only 18 minutes.

I've also finished The True Believer for one. Never was there a book that made me so depressed and nihilistic about life because of its unerring truth since Dostoevsky.

Some food for thought:
Whatever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity. "Vanity," said Napoleon, "made the Revolution; liberty was only a pretext." There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of ever intellectual, be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day. What de Rémusat said of Thiers is perhaps true of most men of words: "He has much more vanity than ambition; and he prefers consideration to obedience, and the appearance of power to power itself. Consult him constantly, and then do just as you please. He will take more notice of your deference to him than of your actions." (p. 121)
Needless to say, this depressed me utterly and reminded me of Christopher Lasch's narcissism hypothesis (full text PDF) which also evoked the same feeling of utter uselessness and futility in myself. I was, however, mollified a bit by another passage a few pages later:
The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist. (p. 128)
Intellectualism as a spectator sport! I've been trying to push this angle for years.

So these excerpts should surely whet your appetite should you decide to read it. It is a short, whirling tour de force and I highly suggest knocking it down in an afternoon or two. It is well-worth it.

Currently Reading

As promised, I moved on then to Imagined Communities (my edition looks like the picture to the right--so much cooler than the new edition). I was worried at first that Anderson's apparently Marxist background would bleed throughout the book. Early on he quotes The New Left Review enough that you might question his intentions, and his style is clearly in the historical materialist tradition. But happily I've found that he takes a sober look at absolutely everyone, not excepting Marxists.

I was also worried that he was an intellectual of the sort who quotes passages in foreign languages and does not translate them to demonstrate his familiarity and skill. But even this seems to be erratic and at times he eagerly supplies the English rendering, though it too often just happens to be for languages he doesn't speak. I'm still running into whole sentences in German 120 pages in or so.

Finally, I was worried about the pacing and abstractness of his thesis. Anderson takes awhile to establish the foundations of his thesis, but in later chapters you begin to realise why it's necessary. I'm glad to say things begin to move a lot quicker as he uses case studies of specific histories and movements with an incredible breadth of knowledge and understanding. It seems that the only region of the world Anderson is not intimately familiar with--which he admits himself in a footnote--is Central/Eastern Europe, which he still treats with amazing skill. And as I'd hoped, I am thoroughly enjoying this middle bit of the book, both because of the sheer amount of historical chronology and the biting analyses of ideological preconceptions: of "nation," of "freedom," of "ancestry," of "language." Here's a light-hearted taste from a wonderful footnote:
Right into the twentieth century there was a spurious quality to this 'national oligarchy' [of Hungary]. Jászi reports the diverting story of one correspondent of a famous Hungarian daily who during World War I interviewed the wounded officer who would become the reactionary dictator of Hungary in the inter-war years. Horthy was enraged by the article's description of his thoughts 'winging back to the Hungarian fatherland, home of the ancestors.' 'Remember,' he said 'that, if my chief warlord is in Baden, then my fatherland is also there!' (p. 106)
I've gotten quite far along in Jewish Literacy, but now I'm at an impasse for two reasons. One, the new edition just came out and it's almost a hundred pages longer than the last edition. I'm reading an obsolete copy! Also, I've reached the section on Israel/Palestine, and I'm honestly afraid to read it, considering that it's written from the perspective of an Orthodox Rabbi. He has a very level head on his shoulders but he is almost assuredly going to present a one-sided view of things. I've decided that I will stop there until I've read through A History of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. Then I will be able to tell if Telushkin is colouring the facts or not.

Otherwise, I'm in stasis, between books. I have to decide. I kind of abandoned Dubliners and On the Road as one is wont to do when they are taking on too many things at once. Maybe I'll pick them up again. Regardless, I've already opened a few pages of Islam and the Secular State, so I'll probably start that. But I also have this growing urge to read The Brothers Karamazov (or The Karamazov Brothers in my trendy translation), which I promised myself I'd finish before the end of summer and which is a spiritual successor to The Idiot. So I might get on that. Then again, I should probably get on something in Spanish (more below).

Money Wasting/Bookbuying

First, books I received free of charge: my father bought me A Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish as a sort of birthday present (the cover is not nearly as colorful as the English translation). I'm very bad at keeping these kinds of promises, but I'm hoping to always maintain one track of books in my native language to keep practicing. My abilities in Spanish have gone so downhill it's embarrassing. This along with some other books brought back from Spain a few years ago should occupy me awhile on a nascent "Spanish" semantic track.

Through BookMooch, I've received Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. I've talked about Istanbul and The Black Book in a few entries if you're interested. I am rapidly realising that the historical novel/fiction is my favorite literary genre for many reasons. I am debating whether or not to try and re-tackle The Black Book first or go straight for My Name is Red. Either way, dear readers, you will know shortly.

Now, I've ordered 5 more books for the Islamic/Middle Eastern studies track I've been on. Part of the impetus was to help gain some perspective for a historical piece I'm working on that takes place in Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus)a--a professor of mine suggested al-Massir (Destiny), on Averroes (Ibn Rushd) for some help. Meanwhile, I ordered The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, Muhammed: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings, No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan, Understanding Islam: an Introduction to the Muslim World, Second Edition by Thomas W. Lippman, and the Oxford World Classics translation of the Qur'an (which I've heard is quite good). Some of these books, by the way, come from suggestions in response to a post I made on Ask Metafilter.

I will now try to figure out how to make posts short and with a preview button instead of these ghastly long things. Until next time!
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