September was a bit of a write-off in terms of productivity (birthday + week in Croatia) which is reflected in my reading. I also half read and gave up on about half a dozen books that proved unreadable so it’s a shorter list than usual. I am also behind on typing up my notes, so we’ll keep this concise.
Still, here’s what I got through. Most are gems that I urge everyone to read.
The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli. A somewhat accessible, broad introduction to logic and decision-making, covering common logical fallacies and cognitive biases. Having read dozens of books and hundreds of academic papers on the topic, only a few parts were new to me. It’s essentially a distillation of Kahneman, Tversky, and Taleb, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are unfamiliar with the topic and want a series of summaries to pique your interest.
The Conquest of Gaul - Julius Caesar. How did I only just learn that Caesar wrote a book? It’s fascinating in terms of the depiction of historical events and lessons in tactical thinking in the kind of clear, uncluttered, well-paced writing that is far too rare. Caesar’s descriptions of battle scenes are so vivid and carefully crafted that even the most complex maneuvers are easy to visualize. Covering the Roman conquest of parts of Europe between 58 and 50 BC, it is part memoir, part propaganda. It has sent me down a rabbit hole of other books on Ancient Rome in a bid to understand parts.
A Nervous Splendour - Frederic Morton. While looking for a book on Vienna, I came across this glorious gem, recounting ten pivotal months in the life of the city - ending with the birth of Hitler in 1889. Although in a sense a historical work, it’s clear that Morton is a novelist at heart. He goes to great lengths to imagine the inner motivations and thoughts of the figures populating the pages - Prince Rudolf, Hugo Wolf, Freud, Klimt and other icons who walked the same streets in the same days. That does make it border on fiction, but I like the way Morton slotted that year into its historical context and tried to consider why the characters acted as they did. Running through it all is the undercurrent of Prince Rudolf’s love affair with Mary, their tragic suicide, and her erasure from history. Morton also manages to drop hints of the growing tensions that would soon contribute to Austria’s role in the first world war.
Diary of a Suicide - Wallace E Baker. A bizarre, mostly forgotten little book from 1913. The author records his life in the months before his suicide, painting a lucid portrait of day to day life with depression. Certain passages could have been pulled from my own diaries from periods of depression. A good rebuttal to anyone who claims mental illness is a recent invention.
Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald. Reread. One of the classics I reread every year or so. What is there left to say about this book? It’s magnificent, agonizing and remains an eloquent masterpiece, full of characters who have been so thoroughly absorbed into popular culture that they feel like old friends, yet retain their mystery.
All The Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy. Three kids run off to Mexico to play at being cowboys, bringing with them their horses. Except, being McCarthy, it’s horribly dark and brutal. I have a fondness for books which, in the spirit of Kerouac, lapse into pages and pages of descriptions of landscapes, meals, towns, journeys. The dialogue is electric - evocative and tinger with the slow burn of naivety. McCarthy manages to fit in a classic ill-fated love affair, between descriptions of the violence of a Mexican prison and the art of breaking horses. One of the best novels I have read for a while.
The Roman Way - Edith Hamilton. There are countless books that tell of the technical side of the Romans - their military strategies, their architecture, their conquests, their entertainment. In The Roman Way, Hamilton takes a different approach and attempts to understand who they were as people. Each chapter centers around a figure or two that we have sufficient information on. Hamilton’s lifelong love of Roman history is clear in the tender, empathetic way she describes each historical figure like each is familiar to her. She traces the growth of Rome, up to the point of its demise, pulling from plays, poetry, and letters. Each figure becomes a lens to see the city through, with their quirks, flaws, and talents evoked alongside sensitive translations. Hamilton puts it best herself:
“What the Romans did has always interested me much less than what they were and what the historians have said they were is beyond all comparison less interesting to me than what they themselves said.”
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius. Reread. Having lent my copy of the Gregory Hays translation to someone and never gotten it back, I ordered a new one. For some reason, Amazon sent me two copies of the George Long translation instead so I decided to give it a go. It is not as stodgy or archaic as I expected and although it lacks the melodic rhythm of the Hays translation, it is longer and each point is more thoroughly fleshed out. For the uninitiated, Meditations is the private diary of a Roman emperor and happens to be one of the most significant philosophical texts. If you haven’t read it before, go for the Hays. But if you have and want to see a different side, give this one a go.
The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything - Christine Gross-Loh and Michael J. Puett. I try to never finish a crappy book, but this month was an exception as I traveled a lot and got stuck with the books I had brought with me. I chose this while looking for an introduction ancient Chinese philosophy and thoroughly regret wasting my time on it. Describing mostly common sense advice based on texts from thousands of years ago as ‘a new way to think about everything’ seems a bit rich and any attempts at practical advice dissolved into the kind of cliches clearly aimed at bored office workers wanting to feel like deep thinkers. I should have learned my lesson by now - with philosophy, it is always best to go straight to the source texts and ignore commentaries.
That’s all for this month. As always, feel free to let me know what you have been reading here.