Sunday, February 20, 2022


I am currently going through another rethink on what to read and discuss on this blog. In the absence of any feedback, I am inclined to just do what I feel like doing. The main problem that I've encountered is finding a type of writing that doesn't become tiresome after a few years. I was already tired of fiction when I began this blog, and I have resigned myself to just dabbling in it occasionally. On the whole, I've had greater success with nonfiction, but while I have hardly exhausted the field, it is still difficult to find good writing in it. The main lesson for me is that if something is a bestseller, the chances of my liking it are nearly zero. I think I've had above-average success with biographies, but have already reached a point where there are few remaining biographical candidates who might interest me. I was stretching it to read about Diderot and Voltaire, and, at the moment, I'm drawing a blank about whose biography I might read next. I considered E.O. Wilson, who died recently, but decided against it. Prior to starting this blog, I read biographies of George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft and D.H. Lawrence, which I found informative, but I don't want to return to them. I have considered reading more memoirs, but so far I have found them to be more problematic than biographies. Most people lack the ability to write objectively about themselves, and, in my experience, a good biography usually provides a fuller and more accurate picture of a person – if the author is competent. For example, I now think that I understand Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell far better than I would have if I had relied exclusively on their autobiographies. Also, after reading parts of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, I think that she started out extremely well with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, but that her later memoirs declined significantly. In particular, she needed an impartial biographer to analyze the complexities of her later life. Her explanations of her adult relationships are extremely lacking, in my opinion. To my knowledge, a good biography of her doesn't exist, or I would read that. 

Speaking of biographies, I should mention that I don't read them the same way that many people do. I am not inclined to hero-worship, and I try to imagine what it would be like to be that person or to know him or her intimately. The circumstances of a person's life are evanescent, and it may therefore be pointless to attempt to emulate someone else, especially if they lived in a different era or on a different continent. What I usually notice is the opposite of a "destined for greatness" narrative, because many factors completely beyond the control of an individual determine the actual course of their life. You can see this in every biography that I've read, though it is more conspicuous in some cases than in others. Charles Darwin in particular might have had a completely different life. As I said, under slightly different circumstances, we might now be talking about Wallaceism instead of Darwinism. Although both Wallace and Darwin were quite able, Darwin's social standing gave him a significant advantage: without it, he may never have attended college, sailed on the Beagle or conducted any scientific research. Darwin was also extremely shy, and if he had never found others to perform the extroverted requirements of his career, Thomas Henry Huxley in particular, he could easily have languished in obscurity. While it is true that Darwin had considerable motivation not to be seen as a failure, which was probably due to his father's low opinion of his abilities, it seems very doubtful that he would have succeeded if he had grown up under Wallace's circumstances.

After reading several long books, shorter ones are beginning to look more attractive to me. I thought that Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge was very good, and would like to find more books like that. However, in order to locate that one, I had to rummage through several university press websites, which is a haphazard process. I've decided to resubscribe to The Times Literary Supplement, which, though it may not end up being useful, covers a very wide range of topics. I currently have a temporary subscription to the online New York Review of Books, which I don't intend to renew, since I still don't find their articles interesting or like many of their writers. In the current issue, they have articles by Paul Krugman and Martha Nussbaum, two writers whom I prefer to avoid. In any case, I will be trying to read slightly academic essays and short books instead of long biographies, such as Ray Monk's biography of Bertrand Russell, which took over six months to complete and probably brought my readers to tears in more ways than one. It is possible that more biographies, novels and poems will pop up here, but perhaps not often. If you have any preferences or recommendations, feel free to communicate them to me.

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