Cloud Atlas (2004)

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I tire of much contemporary fiction because, for the most part, it pales in comparison to older, mightier literature of the canon; and as I find myself “reading against the clock” (to borrow Bloom’s words) it’s hard for me to expend my precious reading hours on literature that doesn’t have a payoff confirmed by many ages before myself. Still, I take chances in the name of curiosity and, I suppose, keeping at least a pulse on the state of current fiction. And yet oftener and oftener, when I take these chances, I find myself disappointed and wishing I had allotted the time to, say, absorbing some unread Shakespeare play, Borges short story, or perhaps tilling the soil of some of Montaigne’s vast corpus of wisdom. But—alas!—with this treasure of 2004 from one David Mitchell, disappointed I was not! Far from it, in fact.

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The Scarlet Letter (1850)

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In Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino’s first definition of “a classic” is a book “about which you usually hear people saying, “‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading….'” (3). By this he essentially means that, if one were to read, say, The Scarlet Letter outside of high school, one would never admit to having never read it before, especially if one were held in high esteem for literary knowledge. I, however, choose to shed all pretensions and fully admit that, though I had read Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (in many ways similar to this novel), before this past weekend I had never read Hawthorne’s magnificent allegory. And I’m glad for it.

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The Art of War (5th century BCE)

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Contrary to western bias, Socrates was not the progenitor of the maxim “know thyself”; in fact, this was a truncation of Sun Tzu’s maxim which boils down to “know thyself and know thy enemy”: “…if you know yourself and know your enemy, you will gain victory a hundred times out of a hundred”; “…if you know the enemy and know yourself, you are sure of victory” (21, 69). This is not to discredit Socrates (or rather Plato’s Socrates), however—to be sure, Sun Tzu’s and Socrates’s audiences and purposes were quite different. What we get with The Art of War is an almost entirely pragmatic manual for generals to successfully conduct war.

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Iliad (c. 800 BCE)

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The Iliad is the beginning of the Western Canon of imaginative literature, and we know virtually nothing about its author (we know perhaps a scintilla more than we know about whoever authored, say, The Cloud of Unknowing). But perhaps this is a good thing; as William Gaddis’s elusive Wyatt Gwyon puts it in The Recognitions, “‘What is the artist but the shambles that follows his work around?'” The imagination abounds much more in the lack of information. All we really know is what has come down to us from Herodotus in his Histories, and that the archaic Greek for Homer means “the blind one.”

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From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2016)

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One is tempted to boil down the conclusion of Dennett’s latest book as follows: Consciousness is not magic; it is an illusion. On first glance at the summation, it seems a ridicule—after all, magicians are called masters of illusion—because it seems that Dennett is contradicting himself. If he is a staunch Darwinian materialist, how can he even use such a word-concept as illusion seriously? If one takes a step back, however, and considers all of Dennett’s evidence, one will find that magic (in the sense that Dennett means: supernatural phenomena) and illusion (the phenomena of “mind stuff”) are quite different things.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

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I’ve heard about this book for years, but never found the prospect of reading it appealing. The hardcover from William Morrow and Company sat on my shelves for years, collecting dust and staving off inferiority complexes against its oft-picked neighbors. What do I know or care of motorcycles? Why do I need to read another book about a practice (Zen) that prides itself on being ineffable? A few Zen koans and some of D. T. Suzuki’s treatises and that’s enough for me to get the gist. Anyway, the title, the unremarkable blackboard binding, the lack of public representation (today), and, well, my own circumscribed thinking kept the book from my mind. Until the recent news of Pirsig’s death.

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Wuthering Heights (1847)

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The blurb on the back of my Vintage Classics paperback edition presents Wuthering Heights as “[p]erhaps the most haunting and tormented love story ever written….” While I usually recoil at the whimsical descriptions publishers use to wrap (and sell) classics, this statement is particularly accurate. The characters we encounter in this book are highly caustic. The themes we encounter are sickness and death, passion and haunting, and generational curses—which find their pitch in light of their author’s tubercular death a year after the book’s publication. Indeed, it is a dark novel. In the first paragraph alone one finds the words troubledmisanthropistdesolation, and black eyes (not as a result of punching, by the way). But one must not get too hung up on the well-trod ground of the novel’s gothic themes. Let’s look at some other dimensions.

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