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What I read last month, with a continuing decade-long focus on the great books of history. This year, the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Erasmus's Colloquies
Nicholas of Cusa's Of Learned Ignorance
Gilbert's On the Lodestone
Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Druon's The Accursed Kings
Historical murder mysteries by Margaret Frazer, C.L. Grace, and Kate Sedley


Veronica Roth's Divergent
DH Lawrence's Women in Love
Ondaatje's Running in the Family
Henry Green's Blindness


Katniss Wannabe: Divergent, by Veronica Roth  
You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest possible terms: As an Amity...a Abnegation...and a Candor.

"My conclusion," she explains, "is that you display equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite. People who get this kind of result are..." she looks over her shoulder like she expects someone to appear behind her."...are called...Divergent." She says the last word so quietly that I almost don't hear it, and her tense, worried look returns. She walks around the side of the chair and leans in close to me.  "Beatrice," she says, "under no circumstances should you share that information with anyone. This is very important...Divergence is extremely dangerous.

This is a completely original YA story, about a dystopian future America in which an oppressive central government divides society into separate factions, and teenagers are forced into simulations with other teens. Some are nasty villains, and some are potential allies, but they have to fight each other.  Into that world, one spunky young woman is about to shake up everything, lock horns with the baddie at the top, and find the hidden group outside of the official division of society, that isn't supposed to exist.  The book--first in a trilogy--is emblazoned with a symbolic round sigil that is on fire!

Okay, the book cover isn't Roth's fault, but still.  She doesn't just drop Hunger Games and Harry Potter references. She backs them up in a truck and dumps them.

To begin with, everyone, at an early age, is expected to wear the Sorting Hat take the aptitude test that will determine whether they should join the Peaceful, Selfless, Brave, Intelligent or Honest faction.  Put a different way, EVERYONE in this world is a belligerent, self-centered, cowardly, stupid liar, with the exception that each person gets to drop ONE of those aspects.  If you're inclined to drop more than one (that is, be virtuous in more than one way), you are "divergent". You eat pig. You worship the golden hind. You sit at the freaky kids' table and wear the wrong brand of jeans.  You are a menace to decent one-virtue society and should be given a full day of detention to write an essay about why you don't fit in ostracized, or better yet, killed.

Beatrice is one of the "divergents' who has more than one high stat.  Those who are supposed to monitor her kind and weed them out from decent society, realizing they are only in the beginning chapters of what must be a whole trilogy, decide to keep her divergence a secret, and merely list her as "Selfless". Beatrice, having her own ideas, volunteers as tribute chooses the "Brave" warrior caste faction instead, setting the stage so that most of the rest of the book can be a wax-on/wax-off montage of her transformation from scared kid into girlpower badass.

Best part of the book?  Underlying questions about what it means to be brave.  Does courage mean following a sadistic drill instructor's order to spar to the point of incapacitation with someone way outside your weight class who will surely smash you, and who is supposed to be on your own side, even, in the big picture?  Does it mean standing up to the DI and refusing to follow the rule?  Does it mean standing up and stopping your teammate from being damaged in a training exercise gone too far?  Can it be pretending to be more vulnerable than you really are? Roth goes far beyond the standard "courage is being afraid and doing what needs to be done regardless" definition.  And her Beatrice character is anything but a Mary Sue.  She doesn't even start out with ninja archery skills.  Divergent may be a variation on an existing story, but I liked it enough to be inspired to song by it.  Anything that inspires songwriting can't be too bad.

Tune:  Simple Minds, "Don't You Forget About Me" (theme song from The Breakfast Club)

DON'T YOU--dare to have fun
The Sorting Hat put you here, in Abnegation
Let me--assign you your label
You won't be allowed at the Cool Kids' table, you'll be
Shoehorned--day in and day out
We know who you are, without any doubt. And it's
All set--what your destiny is
Based on the results of a Zimbio quiz! So--

DON'T YOU--forget who you are
Don't, don't, don't, don't
DON'T YOU--forget who you are

Rock band burnout? Track team sprinter?
Pay your debts, or warn of winter?
Follow orders, follow orders at our will
Would you stand above me?
Question rules in Dystopian schools?
The guards have orders, guards have orders to kill

Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! Woah-ohh...

Don't you--go over the fence
We might have to silence you in self-defense
Always--stay with your own kind
Keep hold of your partner and draw inside the lines, and
Watch out--keep your nose clean
You might end up factionless, in District Thirteen
Your fate--is almost fine-tuned, but
The Sorting Hat chooses, and it chooses too soon, so--

DON'T YOU--don't pigeonhole me
Don't, don't, don't, don't
DON'T YOU--don't pigeonhole me

When they call your name...will you fit the mold?
Will you want to be where they say you belong?
Will you walk the line?
Or will you break the mold when they call your name?
Come on---break the mold!
Will you break the mold?

I say, La-la-la-la...

(Spoken: "But what we found out, is that each one of us is a Dauntless...and a HufflePuff....and a Tribute...and a Pirate...and a Heather."
"Does that answer your question?")

Little Treasures:  The Colloquies, by Desiderius Erasmus
After a short prayer, the beggar asked the cleric, "I say, good father, is it true, as I've heard, that in his lifetime Thomas was most generous to the poor?" "Very true," the man replied, and began to rehearse the saint's many acts of kindness to them.  Then Gratian: "I don't suppose his disposition changed in this manner, unless perhaps for the better." The custodian agreed. Gratian again: "Since, then, the saint was so liberal toward the needy, though he was so poor himself and lacked money to provide for the necessities of life, don't you think he'd gladly consent, now that he is so rich and needs nothing, if some poor wretched woman with hungry children at home, or daughters in danger of losing their virtue because they have no money for dowries, or a husband sick in bed and penniless--if, after begging the saint's forgiveness, she carried off a few of these jeweled relics to rescue her family, as though taking from one who wanted her to have it, either as a gift or a loan?"  When the cleric in charge of the gilded head made no reply to this, Gratian, who is impulsive, said, "For my part, I'm convinced that the saint would even rejoice that in deaht, too, he could relieve the wants of the poor by his riches."  At this, the custodian frowned and pursed his lips, looking at us with Gorgon eyes, and I don't doubt he would have driven us from the cathedral with insults and reproaches had he not been aware that we were recommended by the archbishop.

I read Erasmus's better known work, The Praise of Folly last month, but in my opinion the Colloquies are far better entertainment and wisdom.  I'm not sure how widely read, if at all, they are today, but it seems to me they ought to be displayed among the best of Aristophanes, Moliere, Lucian, Swift and Voltaire.

Usually in the form of dialogues, the Colloquies were originally written as translation exercises for (I assume) serious scholars, not youths.  They're very sophisticated, but never dull.  I wish I'd had such translation exercises--I might have remembered my French and Spanish.  Imagine Mark Twain or GB Shaw writing dialogues on every subject from school sports to crooked horse traders to the corruption and foolishness in the army, the government, the clergy, to what the gospels really teach, and you'll have the idea.  Some of the dialogues are structured like Plato's Symposium or Republic; others are the sort of comic banter between rustics that you find in the best old plays.  You never know when Erasmus is going to be pedantic or "oh snap".

Among the better ones are "The Godly Feast"  (which reminded me of the Symposium), "Courtship" (which might be a manual for how a polite woman defends verbally against a too-ardent suitor who says pretty much the same things too-ardent suitors say today), "The Soldier and the Priest" (one of the rare times the clergy ends up with the moral high ground in Erasmus), "The Ignoble Knight" (satirizing the sort of churl who gives chivalry a bad name) and "The Carriage"(four school chums meet again years later; one has prospered through wisdom and clean living; the others are paying the consequences of poor lifestyles).  A wide variety, with very high recommendations

The War of the Roses Murders: The Maiden's Tale, The Reeve's Tale, The Squire's Tale, by Margaret Frazer  A Shrine of Murders, by C.L. Grace; The Plymouth Cloak, by Kate Sedley
A dark red stain was spread over all the left side of her face, curving out from her hair along her forehead to spread down past her eye, part way along her cheekbone, down past the corner of her mouth to under her jaw and along the side of her throat to her shoulder, ending out of sight under her clothing.  Everywhere else, her flesh was white, smooth, unmarredeven by the pustulous pox she had had as a child, but no one ever saw the rest.  They were either unable to look away from the marred half of her face or else were careful not to look at her at all and that was, in some ways, worse.
--from The Maid's Tale

"Can you read?", Thomasina jibed.
Murtagh grinned and suddenly seized the maid by the hand. "And I suppose you can? It's rare to find a woman like you, Thomasina, who combines both beauty and brain.'
Thomasina pulled her hand away as they reached the bottom of the stairs.  "How do you know my name?" she snapped at him.
'Newington told me.'
'Are all Irishmen liars?'
'Perhaps, but if I called you a fat old hog, would that be a truth or a lie?'
'You are a bog-trotter with the arse hanging out of your pants.   My old father said never trust Irishmen; they love fighting, drinking and wenching!'
--from A Shrine of Murders

Mary Woodrove swung out from tom's hold and around on gibley. "And what becomes of ME if you take it all?" she demanded fiercely.
Gibley turned a cold look on her, "You have a toft and some land, and he has something." He made an equally cold look at Tom Hulcote.  "Let you marry, if that's what you want, and live as you can with what you have."
Tom laid a hand on mary's shoulder.  "I want better than that for her!"
"Then you should be a better man," Gibley said coldly back.
Tom made a threatening step forward. "I'm as good as you, and likely better!"
"Then pity you don't show it."
--from The Reeve's Tale

I have no idea what woke me, but suddenly my eyes were wide open.  It was impossible to tell how long I had been asleep; long enough, fortunately, to turn to my other side, facing in Philip Underdown's direction.  Someone, a man, was standing over his sleeping form, the right arm raised, the hand holding a knife. Even in the darkness, I could see the pallid gleam of the blade..
---from The Plymouth Cloak

"What I understand is that you're helping the Allesleys to rob me! Why don't you just give them everything we have at once and leave us all to starve and be done with it?"
"Because when I let myself be driven into marrying you, my lady wife"--he made the name ugly--"our marriage vows bound me to care for you while we both lived, whether I liked it or not. And just now I don't like it at all."
"You WANTED to marry me! You know you did!"
"What I wanted," Robert said coldly, "was not to spend the rest of my life cleaning pig sties. That was the only other choice sir Walter offered me."  He paused, then added deliberately, viciously, "I should have chosen the pig sties."
--from The Squire's Tale
Frazer's Sister Frevisse mysteries continue to plant subtle feminist and social justice commentaries into a Henry VI convent.  The Maid's Tale, nominally about intrigue and plots revolving around the ransoming of the Duke of Orleans back to France, is really a touching story about a very clever woman whose disfigured face has her deemed untouchable by high society, even as her inner qualities shine.  Similarly, The Reeve's Tale is one of the most obvious 'mysteries' I've ever read, but has a lot to say about the inequality of wealth in a small village where the Reeve stands as a small official between the peasants and the upper-ups.  a Steward of over 10 years service to the church is locked up and his goods forfeited while authorities investigate a mere rumor that he is really an escaped villein who is 'owned' by the lord of a manor.  Farmland is taken from the poor and given to the rich, and the nobles investigate crime motivated by the urge to convict someone with holdings as opposed to without, in order to get worthwhile goods forfeited to the crown.  A hint of what's to come in America if people continue to elect Republicans.  The murder in The Squire's Tale doesn't even happen until 2/3 of the way into the book, and the choice of victim is more surprising than the choice of murderer.  The main part of the book is a springboard for pointing out the absurdity of arranged marriages, forced marriage by abduction and feuds over land that might be resolved by marriage contracts.  The central paterfamilias was forced into an arranged marriage himself, to a woman who now wants him to marry his ward to her son (his stepson, suitor A) before she gets abducted by suitor B, thus costing her the right to have her marriage sold at a profit.  The husband meanwhile has his own forbidden feelings for the ward, feels duty-bound to marry her to suitor C to settle a land dispute, and the ward herself, whose wishes are not considered at all, is predictably miserable.  Tragic mayhem ensues.

A Shrine of Murders is the first in a series by C.L. Grace set in Canterbury as the first Yorkist King takes the throne and his brother Richard of Gloucester is just beginning to ruthlessly kill the Lancastrian faction (Unlike Kate Sedley's Chapman books, Grace goes full on Richard as Shakespearean Villain mode here).  Pilgrims to Beckett's cathedral are being murdered by a serial killer who puts up quotes from Chaucer on the cathedral door every time he kills (and it was lucky for me that I read The Canterbury Tales shortly before this book, see December 2013's Bookpost), and the task of detective falls to--Kathryn Swinbrooke, a herbalist daughter of a physician who takes up her father's practice and struggles against gender prejudice and her own family secret.  I like Swinbrooke.  She has a wonderful combination of gentleness, ready wit, inner steel and intelligence that make her a decent foil for the other detective, the rough Irish soldier Colum Murtagh. The two of them could have a real Hepburn/Bogart African Queen thing going by the time the series gets into full swing.

Finally, moving ahead a few decades, is the second in Kate Sedley's "Roger Chapman" series, that shows all signs of doing for England's Yorkist kings what Saylor and Roberts (see Bookposts from mid-to-late 2012) did for the Roman Republic, interweaving major historical characters of the age and history-changing events with common murders to solve.  Here, Chapman is retained by Richard of Gloucester (portrayed in a good light, not the Shakespearean light), to guard a courier who can't stop encountering old enemies and making new ones everywhere he goes, in a 'frenemy road trip' story with a twist visible from the next town over but enough character and atmosphere to make it a good read regardless.

Real Life Game of Thrones: The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon

And suddenly the Grand Master's voice sounded out of the curtain of fire.  As if addressed to each one present, it affected everyone individually.  With great power, his voice sounding as if it were already coming from on high, Jacques de Molay spoke again as he had done at Notre Dame.
Shame! Shame! You are watching innocents die. Shame upon you! God will be your judge!"
Flames whipped him, burning his beard, turning the paper hat in one second to ashes, setting his white hair alight.  The appalled crowd had fallen silent.  It might have been a mad prophet who was being burned.
The Grand Master's burning face was turned towards the royal loggia.  And the terrible voice cried, "Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret, King Philip, I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out, to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!"

This is really a set of six short novels (the sixth is presented as the conclusion and has the sense of an ending. A seventh installment was apparently written by Druon much later, but I was unable to locate an English translation of it), that is aggressively marketed to people who can't get enough of Game of Thrones, complete with an introduction by George R.R. Martin in which he gives credit to Druon for inspiring Westeros, with the distinction that Druon wrote about intrigues that (arguably) really happened.

The Accursed Kings springs from the historical event quoted in the excerpt.  Early in the 14th Century, France's King Philip the Fair, with the connivance of his puppet Pope Clement, had all the Knights Templar arrested on trumped-up heresy charges so that he could plunder their treasures to finance wars with England.  The Templar leader really did utter a martyr's curse on the Capet dynasty, which really did all die within 25 years (though the Valois and Bourbon dynasties were from the same seed, and lasted till the French Revolution) under circumstances suggesting the throne as a snakepit of poisonings and backstabbings among corrupt, amoral royalty, cabinet ministers, clergy, military leaders, disgruntled bastards, foreign diplomats, bankers, dark magicians and servants.

The George R.R. Martin similarities are limited to scene after scene in which two or more scoundrels meet to hatch plots to destroy mutual enemies while secretly scheming against each other.  A more apt miniseries comparison, it seems to me, would be with  the Derek Jacobi I, Claudius.  A set cast of historical characters with author-made speeches, no real battle or other crowd scenes, and no dragons, undead or magic, but with prophecies and other implied but not irrefutable allegations of the supernatural.  Druon, as far as I can tell, asserts nothing in the plot that provably did not happen, but he does speculate extensively and add some 'commoner' characters who may or may not have been there.  He also skips quickly over the (boring) periods of peace and prosperity, such as the reign of Philip the Long (book 4 ends with his accession to the throne on the back of a murdered child; book 5 begins with his death of the plague), such that the story is an always fast-moving and suspenseful read.  Very high recommendations.

Sight for Sore Eyes:  Blindness, by Henry Green
There were so many things to do, all the senses to develop, old acquaintances of childhood to make friends with again.  To sit still and be stifled by the blackness was wrong; he had done that long enough.  The temptation was so great, the darkness pressed so close, and what sounds one heard could only at first be converted into terms of sight and not of sound.  When a blackbird fled screaming he had only been able to see it as a smudge darting along, and he had tried in vain to visualise it exactly.  Now he was beginning to see it as a signal to the other birds that something was not right; it was the feeling that one has in the dark when something moves, and when one jumps to turn on the light, and the light leaps out through the night. Why translate into terms of seeing, for perhaps he would never see again, even in his dreams? They might be of sounds or of touch, now.

When I was in high school, my English teacher told us to write an essay about Oedipus's "tragic flaw that all heroes of tragedies have".  She further told us that his tragic flaw was pride.  Marching to the beat of a different kazoo, I wrote my essay asserting instead that Oedipus suffered from "blindness", his inability to see the truth bearing down on him like a steamroller foreshadowing the physical blindness to come.  I thought it was a decent effort, but the teacher, who knew the one correct way to skin a cat, scolded me for not having paid sufficient attention to her, and made me do the paper over.

I mention this because Henry Green's first novel also plays around with physical vs. intellectual and spiritual inability to see, and titles the novel accordingly.  Protagonist John Haye's idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt turning point when an accident blinds him.  In segments titled "Caterpillar", "Chrysalis", and "Butterfly" for those who need extra hints that this is a bildungsroman, Haye refuses to roll over and die, sharpens his remaining senses, and moves to London to find himself.  Meanwhile, his horrible "How could you do this to me" stepmother, who still has two functional eyes, can't see a damn thing that counts.  Her focus shifts between handwringing on what to do about John, and handwringing over whether to shoot the family's aging pet dog, drown a littler of kittens, and other ham-fisted analogies.  

A subplot involves a spiritually blind parson, defrocked, drunk, abusive toward his insightful daughter, John's caregiver.

Green went on to write much better-known novels like Living  and Loving.  This is clearly a 'first novel' by someone who learned and grew as he went along (like John Haye, come to think of it), mostly playing with themes, not a 'great work', but worth the effort.

Snapshot: Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje
When the bus arrived she herded herself in with the rest and, after ten minutes of standing in the aisle, found a seat where three could sit side by side.  Eventually the man next to her put his arm behind her shoulder to give them all more room.
Gradually, she began to notice the shocked faces of the passengers facing across the aisle.  At first they looked disapprovingly and soon began whispering to each other.  Lalla looked at the man next to her who had a smug smile on his face.  He seemed to be enjoying himself. Then she looked down and saw that his hand had come over her left shoulder and was squeezing her breast.  She smiled to herself.
She had not felt a thing.  Her left breast had been removed five years earlier and he was ardently fondling the sponge beneath her gown.

This short family memoir (readable in about an hour and a half) by the author of The English Patient was written after a visit in the late 1970s to Sri Lanka, where Ondaatje was born.  It is jarring in the way that Bouvier's The Scorpion fish (Bookpost, August 2008) is jarring: presented as nonfiction, it asserts impossible things as fact. It is also jarring in a clash-of-cultures sort of way; I grew up on P.G. Wodehouse and the depiction of the 20s-era British as a bunch of laughing, harmless wot-wot twits having endless fun drinking to the point of silliness at the club.  Of course, what the British were doing in and around Colonial India at the time was not very funny, and neither were the effects of endless alcohol, even in the "roaring 20s" that our grandparents loved, when everything was fun and  before us young people ruined it all by letting the darkies vote.  Once again, the modern myths I was told at an impressionable age clash with the reality.

In fact, the whipsaw effect of Running in the Family goes from fun anecdote to unseemly skeletons in the closet that you weren't sure you wanted to know about, and back again, in an instant.  It's like having a near stranger tell you about her delightfully batty uncle, who used to forget to put his pants on before the ball, and everyone would laugh and laugh, and you know, when he was on one of his benders, you had to supervise him carefully around the children...

Freudship is Magic:  Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence  
The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful, strident concussions.  The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror.  then suddenly her forefeet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him.  But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark.  But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back legs away from the railway, so that she spun round and round, on two legs, as if she were in the center of some whirlwind...Gudrun was as if numbed in her mind by the sense of indomitable soft weight of the man, bearing down into the living body of the horse: the strong, indomitable thighs of the blond man clenching the palpitating body of the mare into pure control; a sort of soft white magnetic domination from the loins and thighs and calves, enclosing and encompassing the mare heavily into unutterable subordination, soft blood-subordination, terrible.

I sometimes have trouble remembering DH Lawrence was a 20th Century writer.  His prose style has more in common with the late 19th Century than with the 20th, which I associate with awkward experimentation.  Lawrence, however, is experimental in a different, Freudian way  that manages to piss off the left for being offensively misogynist in his sexuality and focusing on the self-actualization of rich white people as the center of the Universe in a world where industrial strife and pending war threaten, and to piss off the right for being sexual at all.

The book mostly centers on two couples who alternate endless 'philosophical' conversation that reveals more about their own self-centered shallowness than about philosophy, and doing heedlessly destructive things for reasons hinted at in their repressed psychology.  There's Gerald, the man's man of an industrialist heir, who is as power-hungry as Nietzche and only twice as sane; Rupert, the more sensitive one, maybe a stand-in for Lawrence himself; and the two sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, who vacillate between flighty silliness and wild irrational rage on a whim, because girls are a directionless force of nature symbolizing the Id, and they need a practical sensible male (just the sort Gerald and Rupert aren't) to tame them.

There is dissonance, in that Lawrence uses a ton of compelling, erotic imagery that would normally be wonderful, except that he uses it to describe bad behavior or to draw unhealthy implications.  A mare is spooked by a long, sleek, noisy locomotive, and the male rider vigorously tames her down between his legs, while the women experience hidden thrills.  A tomcat mounts a reluctant female as the nearby human males wink and nudge about courtship rituals.  Gerald and Rupert wrestle naked (Rupert, the smaller, supposed "bottom", wins) with all the homoerotic undertones you've come to expect over 300 pages.  Then they all go traveling, and there is a pointless fight and a death, and that's how the book ends.  To me, the big weakness of the book is that it's not only hard to like any of the main characters, but it's hard to even care what they think.  And what they think is supposedly of vital importance to everyone in the world, or so they'd have you believe.

Know-Nothingism: Of Learned Ignorance, by Nicholas of Cusa  
It so far surpasses human reason to know the precision of the combinations in material things and how exactly the known has to be adapted into the unknown that Socrates thought he knew nothing save his own ignorance, whilst Solomon the Wise affirmed that in all things there are difficulties that beggar explanation in words; and we have it from another, who was divinely inspired, that wisdom and the locality of the understanding lie hidden from the eyes of all the living...If we can fully realize this desire, we will acquire learned ignorance.  Nothing could be more beneficial for even the most zealous searcher for knowledge than his being in fact learned in that very ignorance which is peculiarly his own.

I'd be kidding myself to think I'd passed all the dreary, preachy theology by progressing from the Medieval to the Modern era.  Nicholas of Cusa was a second-tier 15th Century "philosopher"  with yet another question-begging passage from the 'proof'' of  the existence of some kind of higher power in the Universe to the assumption that therefore the Biblical God and Jesus must be that higher power.  

In this case, the starting point is the acceptable axiom that one cannot know everything---which Cusa takes to the more dubious conclusion that the greatest form of knowledge is the study of one's own ignorance, from which flows faith.  Infinity is impossible to know, says Cusa; therefore God is both the most infinitely large incomprehensible maximum and the most infinitely small incomprehensible minimum.  If that seems impossible to you, then congratulations, you have achieved learned ignorance.  In other words, you have all the wit and wisdom of a Sophomore.  

Bad luck to my tolerance for Cusa that I encountered him on the heels of the much greater Erasmus, who would eat such doctrines for lunch and call for a glass of wine to wash away the taste.  Worse luck that Cusa chooses as examples of the 'unknowable', astronomical and mathematical phenomena that science has since come to understand.  Cusa asserts that an infinite line is no different from an infinite circle or triangle, because a curved line can eventually become so large that it loses its curve and becomes, in fact, straight.  In fact, it does not; it only has an optical illusion, like the illusion that some vast, flat expanse of Kansas plains that extends as far as the eye can see in all directions is a flat surface instead of a part of a spherical earth.  Further, Cusa never does go on to explain where the infinite line forms the acute angle that must occur at least twice in any triangle.  nonetheless, mathematical symbols are considered proof of God's existence, which in turn proves that Jesus is Lord. Amen and QED.  Of Learned Ignorance's chief virtue is that it is short, and its sections are short enough to be read while waiting on line.

Libertarian Paradise:  The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, by Jacob Burckhardt
To the discovery of the outward world the Renaissance added a still greater achievement, by first discerning and bringing to light the full, whole nature of man.  This period, as we have seen, first gave the highest development to individuality, and then led the individual to the most zealous and thorough study of himself in all forms and under all conditions.  Indeed, the development of personality is essentially involved in the recognition of it in oneself and in others.  Between these two great processes our narrative has placed the influence of ancient literature because the mode of conceiving and representing both the individual and human nature in general was defined and coloured by that influence.  But the power of conception and representation lay in the age and in the people.

Burckhardt wrote this history in the 19th century, and it is still widely read and regarded as one of the great works of history.  The Italian Renaissance, as I'm rediscovering, was quite a philosophical, political and cultural tapestry, difficult to pigeonhole.  On one hand, as Burckhardt emphasizes, it was a period of individual growth, replete with secular challenges to church authoritarianism from Florence, Milan and Venice.  On the other hand, the church was still demanding conformity, and only those with a good deal of lordly privilege had the luxury of standing up to it--and replaced church tyranny with their own as far as their sphere of influence extended.  the great artists only thrived if they were able to find a powerful patron in the church or the aristocracy to support them--and to tell them what to paint or sculpt.  so yes, if your name was Borgia or Medici, you were wild and free and could do what you wanted.  The rest of Italy--and Europe--was as repressed as ever, and had to wait until the (decidedly unindividualistic) Reformation to strike against the spoiled, avaricious, gluttonous, lustful, languid guardians of the public morals.  The Medici era of Florence was followed and upended by Savonarola the Destroyer.

Burckhardt appears to have been an innovator in incorporating the day to day life of the people into what counts as official history. The most interesting parts of Burckhardt are the  myriad anecdotes about unnamed people committing and suffering atrocities, such as the time an accidental death caused by some youths' idiotic horseplay instigated a blood feud of 36 murders, each committed in revenge for the one before.  Or the village that lacked the funds to adequately recompense the hero who saved them from a marauding army, and so decided it would be a perfect reward to kill him and immortalize him as their village's patron saint.  the Renaissance was a beautiful romantic era, but remember that romances tend to end with buckets of blood being spilled.

All you never wanted to know about magnets:  On the Lodestone, by William Gilbert  
In the discovery of secret things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators of the common sort.

Adler's "Great Books of the Western World" series emphatically includes the "great works of science" as essential reading, and insists that lay readers can and should read them as part of a liberal education.  Of course, science is vital, but I remain dubious as to how well their works hold up among the humanities.  The set has just ten science volumes, one for each year in a decade of study, and so I'm gamely including them, but they are the hardest for me to read, the hardest to write about, and the hardest to justify as worth studying today, given that they focus on scientific theory that has usually long been surpassed.  Ptolemy's geocentric universe-based Almagest was only the most blatant example.

Gilbert's On the Lodestone contains a lifetime's worth of research on magnets, replete with experiments that children with red horseshoe-shaped magnets perform in elementary school today, and other experiments involving compasses that dip away from true north, that are not performed at all.  The best parts are the passages that ridicule the wrong hypotheses of earlier theorists, such as the notion that compasses are activated by a 'magnetic mountain' at the north pole, which draws all metal.  Later theorists, such as Bacon, were to in turn ridicule Gilbert for allegedly treating the magnet as the "philosopher's stone". Others, like Faraday, were to use his work to transition into discovering and harnessing electricity.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Thu Apr 03, 2014 at 11:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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