Unstructured Reading

  1. Eat a Peach by David Chang

Structured Reading

At the beginning of this year, I randomly downloaded the Harvard Classics/Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of books. This is a set of books that contains a selection of classic readings meant to provide a full classic liberal education in themselves.

My first exposure to this series was at my Granny’s house where she owned a subset of the shelf. I’ve never had a mind to read the entirety of the shelf.

Volume 50 of the 50-volume series contains several suggestions of the ways in which a reader may choose to tackle the task of intelligently navigating the embarrassment of material in the collection. I’ve naively chosen to follow the first suggested course of reading: The history of civilization.

Here I’ll track my progress and notes:

Race and Language by Edward Augustus Freeman

Freeman is famous for his history of the Norman conquest. There are a few good quotes in the early part of this reading.

There is an early section where he talks about race as an artificial construct:

A hundred years ago a man’s political likes and dislikes seldom went beyond the range which was suggested by the place of his birth or immediate descent. […] That feelings such as these, and the practical consequences which have flowed from them, are distinctly due to scientific and historical teaching there can, I think, be no doubt.

Which is a thought that I’ve never had before: that our ability to hate our fellow human beings has in modern times has been enhanced by science and history’s creation of the concept of race.

Freeman goes on to argue that while race is an artificial construct, it’s an important construct – if only because it effects the behavior of a large number of people:

A belief or a feeling which has a practical effect on the conduct of great masses of men, sometimes on the conduct of whole nations, may be very false and very mischievous; but it is in every case a great and serious fact, to be looked gravely in the face.

This all seems fair enough.

After these initial insights the reading gets pretty cringy pretty fast. I went on to read the Wikipedia page for Edward Augustus Freeman and overall he seems like a racist piece of shit, so I don’t feel too bad for abandoning the first reading of the course.

This reading does make me a little anxious about the shelf’s ability to contextualize the readings in a way that’s relevant to me.

The Book of Job

I am very ignorant of pretty much the entirety of bible, so this is my first time reading the book of Job.

Most of the story is a dialog that attempts to address the problem of why bad things happen to good people. The answer, it seems, is that God just does shit sometimes and it may seem capricious (and maybe it even is) but you can’t assume that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.

What knowest thou, that we know not? What understandest thou, which is not in us? – Job 15:9

In the story the reason for Job’s suffering is that Satan mentioned to God that Job is probably only pious because he has a cushy life so God destroys his life because reasons.

The majority of the reading is Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildada, and Zophar insufferably insisting that Job repent for his wicked ways. Job keeps insisting that God is causing his suffering for no reason, randomly, and he has nothing to repent for – which (from our omniscient narrative prospective) we know is totally correct – and his friends say things like:

Behold, God will not cast away a perfect man, neither will he help the evil doers – Job 8:20

And

For the company of the godless shall be barren, And fire shall consume the tents of bribery. – Job 15:34

And

Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth. – Job 11:6

Which are, it occurs to me – like Polonius’s speech in Hamlet (best embodied by Bill Murray in the 2000 movie version of Hamlet) – likely quoted out of context all the fucking time in the misguided belief that that they’re not meant to be banal, naive, and (in this instance) ultimately incorrect platitudes.

God swoops in at the end of the narrative and restores Job at his friend’s expense and explains basically nothing which is probably the point.

An Account of Egypt by Herodotus

The Odyssey by Homer