One reason I can be glad of the two weeks I spent with my family in South Africa is because it gave me some time to catch up on some reading. It was also hot, so I didn’t actually write anything but we’ll forget that. Let’s start the 2018 book list!
12/05/2018 Added The Conquest of Bread
7/07/2018 Added one-and-a-half books
Thank you, Jeeves (1934) by PG Wodehouse
I remember my interest in reading the Jeeves and Wooster stories came from a small extract in one of the English comprehension pieces we did at school. There wasn’t much there but there was something about it that made me curious and I was disappointed when I couldn’t find any copies of the books at the time.
My first real taste of “Jeeves and Wooster” came from the BBC adaptation of that name. While the pace was sometimes sedate it was really interesting seeing the old English manors, the lifestyles of the upper crust and hearing the language of the stories. It is an excellent series that I would highly recommend. If nothing else it features some superb and witty bits of both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, if you’ll pardon the pun.
So what did I think of one of the actual books? I kinda liked it. I knew the story because of the BBC series so I could picture all the characters and everything and nothing was confusing. There were a few minor differences to the series but nothing major. I’m not sure if all the books were adapted or not because the close similarity means I didn’t really gain anything new above what I’d already known.
Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
Another classic that I hadn’t read but of whose contents I had a bit of an understanding. You can’t go far through life without an awareness of Animal Farm and many of the sayings and imagery associated with it. But I’d never known the full story and it was good to see the context in which things had occurred. I borrowed this one from my sister when my old computer stopped working and before I fixed it.
The story is pretty much what I expected. It’s clear and easy-to-follow. This is one of the most well-known allegorical stories and is mainly based on the Russian Revolution. I don’t know much about the Russian Revolution but the political commentary from Animal Farm is widely applicable. Much the same as when I read 1984, I could see many things in the text that are very similar to events happening in contemporary politics.
Even today we see movements and leaders with good intentions becoming corrupted, we see gullible citizens, we see principles being twisted and changed over time to suit the ruling party and we see how leaders will cosy up to supposedly reprehensible regimes to serve their own interests. Animal Farm was written decades ago but the lessons in it are timeless and the book is just as relevant today as when it was first published.
Furry Nation (2017) by Joe Strike
This should’ve been on the 2017 list. I started it only two or three weeks after the book was released but stopped halfway through for several weeks as other things took focus. This is a bit young to be a classic and, unlike the other two, this is non-fiction. Furry Nation is partly a historical account of the formation of the furry fandom and one of the major conventions and partly a description of the fandom, some of the author’s personal experiences and a refutation of certain media coverage.
There are almost no books about the furry fandom so it’s great to see something like this being made. I can certainly nitpick about a couple of things in the book. I think many of the non-historical chapters are far more reflective of the author’s opinion than of fact and are, sometimes frustratingly, focused on the American side of the fandom. It could’ve been a great book rather than just a good book but even the weaker chapters are seldom really bad. Very little of that criticism applies to the historical parts of the book though, which are the most important.
There were a lot of interviews with the people that started the fandom; the furry fandom has only been going since the late 70’s/early 80’s so most of the people are still around. In the book we read some things that were just not told before and its quite accessible to read. I’m sure even any fur would learn something new from this book and for non-furs its a much, much better starting point than most media coverage.
The Conquest of Bread (1892, translation 1926) by Peter Kropotkin
Despite some inconsistencies, what I do know is that Peter Kropotkin is the English version of the name of a Russian prince who gave that up to become an anarchist and a communist. His philosophy was detailed in several books, including The Conquest of Bread which was originally published in French in 1892. I believe the English translation which I read (also available on Project Gutenberg) was published in 1926.
The books two main themes are communism – the communal ownership of the means of production, the elimination of class and money and the distribution of goods to fulfil the needs of all members of society – and anarchism – the elimination of all forms of government in favour of equality and free association between people. This bares similarities to the predominant Marxist form of communism but is not exactly the same and nearly every reference to Marxism in the book is in a negative sense.
I found the book extremely interesting and to raise a number of very good and relevant points and certainly to paint a picture of a much better society than currently exists. I think the rise of AI and further automation would strengthen many of the arguments Kropotkin makes. Would an anarchist communist society function in practice? There have not been many actual examples and the few that did form have generally been quickly suppressed by governments. There are some issues which the book does not address. Would free association make discrimination last longer? Could anarchism function well when industries are globally connected? How could we manage global challenges like climate change?
Of course, the elephant in the room is that all Utopian visions are not going to happen unless there are massive technological breakthroughs, big changes to lifestyles and the decrease of the human population. Some people warn that it’s already too late to stop climate change. Other research points out that, given current populations and technologies, it is just not possible to have a sustainable society where everyone’s needs are met. Global leadership has already failed us.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2016) by Adam Rutherford
I got this book from my family when I went back to South Africa. I can’t recall whether it was a Christmas or birthday present. In any case, I spent the last two-and-a-bit days in the Czech Republic for a PhD retreat and was able to use some of the time there to finish reading this book. Overall, I liked it but with some reservations.
I did not care for the first chapter which was a major contributing factor to why I read The Conquest of Bread first. It deals with human evolution (early hominid species) which I find tedious and dull at the best of times but it also felt like the writing was trying too hard to be flowery and poetic. Maybe the problem was just the content because I didn’t notice that being an issue in the later chapters and really enjoyed them. While I’m on the subject of the writing, I was really impressed by how he showed genome structure in the text at several points.
There was one chapter about race which I was particularly interested in and partially disappointed by. It’s a big issue with some people even denying it exists and others attributing all sorts of nonsense to specific races and thinking it gives them licence to treat others differently. The chapter is constructed rather strangely, it’s already 39 pages in before Rutherford discusses what is meant by race. If you’re going to discuss any topic you need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Even then, it seemed like he was struggling to reconcile his politics with his science. He brings up a lot of good points and its an excellent chapter overall but, in the end, he seems to be saying that race is continuous and messy and therefore the terms are meaningless. But there are plenty of continuous and messy things (he brings up genres of books) where classification is still useful. Biology is messy and categories can be fuzzy but that doesn’t mean they should be discarded.
The Adventures of Peter Gray (2018) by Nathan Hopp
This book tells us about a year in the life of Peter Gray, an anthropomorphic, orphaned wolf cub living in New York City in 1899. It’s an alternate history, obviously, where furry characters and humans co-exist with many events and people from 1899 being included. I didn’t find that to work so well though and think it would’ve been better off using a fictional world based on 1899 New York.
Almost each chapter forms its own complete story, although they do fit together to create an overall story arc and eventually a large change in Peter Gray’s life. The stories are all rather charming, mixing childhood innocence and freedom with the Oliver Twist like issue of living on the streets. There are also many other themes that are dealt with quite well and make it worthwhile reading.
Given the way each chapter forms its own story and the anthropomorphic aesthetic that would accompany it, I can’t help thinking it would make a really nice children’s TV show. I mean, it’d be a fairly gloomy one perhaps in some areas but just look at some of the old children’s movies. Watership Down, The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, All Dogs go to Heaven. (Yes, I realise three of those are by Don Bluth.) It would fit right in.
De Vita Beata (“On the Happy Life”) (c. 58, translated 1900) by Seneca
This was included with the copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius which I bought. It was much shorter so I thought I’d just give it a quick read but it seems that it’s not all here. There are supposed to be 28 chapters but I only have 15 of them. That’s a little disappointing but I did read what was printed.
The first part of De Vita Beata is meant to deal with living a happy life. According to Wikipedia that should be up until chapter 17, so I don’t even have all that section! I would need to read it slower a second time to really take it all in but it seemed that the main point in the chapters I had was about the distinction between pleasure and virtue. Virtue is what ultimately makes one happy but that which is virtuous is not necessarily pleasurable nor is what is pleasurable necessarily virtuous.