A Year in Reading

It’s the year-end, the season for gifts and top ten lists. I figured I’ll make a top ten list myself, but since I don’t have the time (and the patience) to boil down everything I’ve read this year into a list of ten (plus some runners-up of course), I’ve decided to do what every loafer would have done: cram everything into a single blogpost and just pray it’ll make sense. This hodgepodge of quotations and half-baked commentaries may look like the screenplay of the next Godard film: it isn’t. The format was actually inspired by Laudator temporis acti whose blog’s backlog I’ve read during the summer break. Some disclaimers, though, before anything else: The passages I quoted here are in no way representative of the whole work from which they come. Nor is this a best-of list. I’ve included in this list everything I remember reading in 2016—the good, the bad, and the meh.

January

Serial killers, psychiatrists and Teddy Roosevelt

New York during the Gilded Age. A serial killer on the loose; chasing him on his track are Theodore Roosevelt, a psychologist with a nice Hungarian name, and a heartbroken New York Times writer with an alcohol problem; during the brief interludes between inspecting corpses and trying to spot and save the killer’s next victim, sumptuous (yes, I’m using that word) lunch and dinners at Delmonico’s. If this doesn’t sound like the recipe for a best-selling crime thriller, then you haven’t read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. “Alienist” is an early twentieth-century term for psychologists and psychiatrists, because, as Carr explains at the start of the novel, mad people were believed to be “alienated not only from society but also from themselves.”

From the Glass Bead Game

“History is as it has happened. Whether it was good, whether it would have been better not to have happened, whether we will or will not acknowledge that it has had ‘meaning’—all this is irrelevant.”

February

Dolan on friendship and fashion

The brewing tension between them notwithstanding, Francis (played by Xavier Dolan) gives his best friend Marie a talking to in a pivotal scene in the lovely but uneven Les Amours imaginaires: “C’est pas parce que c’est vintage que c’est beau.” (This isn’t from a book so I’m probably cheating. But whatever.)

From Rabbit, Run

“That’s what you have, Harry: life. It’s a strange gift and I don’t know how we’re supposed to use it but I know it’s the only gift we get and it’s a good one.”
Which reminded me of this passage from the beginning of Thomas Pynchon’s V.:

“Don’t you know,” said Dahoud, “that life is the most precious possession you have?”

“Ho ho,” said Ploy through his tears. “Why?”

“Because,” said Dahoud, “without it you’d be dead.”

The inevitability of happiness

From an essay by Borges: “The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only that which crushes it. But happiness, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable. Modern man, however, takes the credit for it himself when he does not fail to recognise it.”


Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt im blauen Malerkittel. Image source : The Leopold Museum

March

More Borges

“Fame is a form—perhaps the worst form—of incomprehension.”

Pound, “A Girl”

Most know Pound as an angry and esoteric Fascist-slash-poet. But he was first a scholar of the poetry of troubadours, mediaeval bards and love songwriters who roamed the countryside of Southern Europe singing of heartbreaks and longing. In fact he wrote some beautiful love poems himself. This is from the poem “A Girl”: “Tree you are,/ Moss you are,/ You are violets with the wind above them./ A child—so high—you are./ And all this is folly to world.”

April

From a Japanese grammar book

This made me laugh when I first read it:
私は学生なので、お金がいないんです。 (Since I’m a student, I don’t have money.)

Whoever said textbooks aren’t fun!

Words of wisdom from e.e. cummings

“Would you hit a woman with a child? —No, I’d hit her with a brick.”

Sweetly smiling

The line that concludes Horace’s ode “Integer vitae” is probably the best line of poetry I’ve read this year, maybe even the best I’ll read ever: “Dulce ridentem Lalagen amabo, dulce loquentem.”—The sweetly smiling Lalage I will love, the softly speaking.

Joyce on the private life of the artist

In the library episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, this interesting passage occurs: “—But this prying into the family life of a great man. … I mean, we have the plays. I mean when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? … Peeping and prying into the greenroom gossip of the day, the poet’s drinking, the poet’s debts. We have King Lear and it is immortal.”

May

What the Nike ads really mean

Hal talks about life as a professional athlete in DFW’s Infinite Jest: “Just do it. Forget about is there a point, of course there isn’t a point. The point of repetition is there is no point.”

Shakespeare not so in love

From the 1997 movie: “Love and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want.” Or better: “That woman is a woman!

DFW reviews a novel by Updike

Here’s from one of DFW’s essay collections (Consider the Lobster, probably): “Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the novel’s first page. It never occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”

From Orlando

Woolf writes about the England of Orlando and Elizabeth I: “The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme the young translated into practice. Girls were roses and their seasons were short as the flowers’. Plucked they must be before nightfall; for the day was brief and the day was all.”

June

A Historian’s Disclaimer for the Rest of 2016

From Mediaeval Europe by H.W.C. Davis: “We should not, however, judge an age by its crimes and scandals. We do not think of the Athenians solely or chiefly as the people who turned against Pericles, who tried to enslave Sicily, who executed Socrates. We appraise them rather by their most heroic exploits and their enduring work.”

From Carlos Ruíz Zafón, El sombra del viento

“La televisión, amigo Daniel, es el Anticristo y le digo yo que bastarán tres o cuatros generaciones para que queda la gente ya no sepa ni triarse pedos por su cuenta y el ser humano vuelva a la caverna, a la barbarie medieval, y a estados de imbecilidad que ya superó la babosa allá por el pleistoceno. Este mundo no se morirá de una bomba atómica como dicen los diarios, se morirá de banalidad, haciendo un chiste de todo, y además un chiste malo.”

DFW on why you shouldn’t get that tattoo you’ve been itching to have for months now

From Infinite Jest: “Having a tatt removed means just exchanging one form of disfigurement for another.”

From Camus, L’Étranger

“Ce qui est admirable ce n’est pas que le champ des étoiles soit si vaste, c’est que l’homme l’ait mesuré.”

August

What does the fox say?

After a thousand failed attempts, I finally finished reading Le Petit Prince: “Adieu, dit le renard. Voici mon secret. Il est très simple : on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible par les yeux.”
And this one’s funny:
“Ah ! Voilà la visite d’un admirateur.”

Even mathematicians find math hard

From the epigraph to Bernd Øksendal’s Stochastic Differential Equations, supposedly taken from a note posted at the mathematics reading room at Tromsø University: “We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only seem to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

From the Book of Tea

“In the worship of Bacchus, we have sacrificed too freely; and we have even transfigured the gory image of Mars. Why not consecrate ourselves to the queen of Camellias, and revel in the warm stream of sympathy that flows from her altar? In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotse, and the eternal aroma of Sakyamuni himself.”

More from the Book of Tea

“The ancient sages never put their teachings in a systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They begin by talking like fools and ended by making themselves wise.”

The Friends of English Magick

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is so English and so magical that if you’re only experience with English magic is from Harry Potter then boy are you missing out on the good things in life. This book is magic, but not the giggle-inducing magic you’re used to seeing performed in Hogwarts; the magic in Jonathan Strange is a lot more sinister, reminding you of windswept moors and ivy-covered castles, of England itself, the kind of magic which makes you ask yourself when you see your face in the mirror, whether it is you who are looking and not the one being looked at.

Dr Trefusis hates books

From Stephen Fry, The Liar: “[The] bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying. … The world is so fond of saying that books should be ‘treated with respect.’ But when are we to be told that words should be treated with respect? From our earliest years we are taught to revere only the outward and visible. Ghastly literary types maundering about books as ‘objects.’ Yes, that does happen to be a first edition. A present from Noel Annan, as a matter of fact. But I assure you that a foul yellow livre de poche would have been just as useful to me.”

September

From The Liar

“A university education should be broad and general. But these students are being trained not educated. They are being stuffed like Strasbourg geese. Pappy mush is forced into them, just so one part of their brains can be fattened. Their whole minds are ignored for the sake of that part of them which is marketable.”

Miss Brodie teaches art

From Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Bodie:
“Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto. He is my favourite.”

More Borges

“A popular tale, which I picked up in Geneva during the last years of World War I, tells of Miguel Severet’s reply to the inquisitors who had condemned him to the stake: ‘I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue the discussion in eternity.’”

The truth is overrated

From Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter: “The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being—it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”

The reasons of the heart

This line from Pascal’s Pensées seemed everywhere this year. My law professor even quoted the Supreme Court quoting this line from Pascal: “La coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” (The hearts has its reasons which reason itself does not know.)

The Life of the Bull

An impassioned defence of the mediaeval from Chesterton’s St. Thomas: “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be—that is the question,’ then the massive mediaeval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be—that is the answer.’ The point is important; many not unnaturally talk of the Renaissance as the time when certain men began to believe in Life. The truth is that it was the time when a few men, for the first time, began to disbelieve in Life.”
The “massive mediaeval doctor” is Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose corpulence earned him the moniker, “the Bull.” Here’s another passage from the Chesterton biography:
“As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue who is ready to sneer. … We have noted that there are barely one or two occasions on which Saint Thomas engaged in a denunciation. There is not a single occasion on which he engaged in a sneer. … He was, in a double sense, an intellectual aristocrat: but he was never an intellectual snob.”

Everybody’s favourite line from Faust

No. I haven’t read Goethe’s Faust yet. But clearly Mikhail Bulgakov and Jonathan Franzen both had, since they both used this line from Faust as an epigraph to one of their novels: “…die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft. ([I am part of that force] that forever wills evil but forever brings about the good.)”

Bulgakov used it in Master and Margarita, a wonderful tale mostly about the Devil visiting Moscow to, I don’t know, do stuff, but also about Master and Margarita (ugh!). It’s like Dostoyevsky on heroin—plus a talking cat, don’t forget the talking cat! (Hello, Murakami.)
Franzen meanwhile used it in Purity, his newest novel which just came out last year. I enjoyed Freedom and the first pages of Purity seemed promising enough. (Purity, by the way, is the protagonist’s name—or Pip, if you want, like the Pip.) I have yet to finish it though since I have a bad case of polygamous reading.

From Imitatio Christi

Still basking in the weird residual religiosity I got after (mis)reading two biographies of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I’ve tried reading Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi in the original. I didn’t get to finish it though. My Latin wasn’t good enough for understanding anything more complex than “Cornelia vidit puellam in taberna,”—but since it is generally easier to figure things out in mediaeval Latin than the Latin used in, say, Aeneid, I managed to scrape these profounder bits:
“Homo naturaliter scire desiderat, sed scientia sine timore Dei quid importat.”
“[A]dveniente die judicii non quaeretur a nobis, quid legimus, sed quid fecimus; nec quem bene diximus, sed quam religiose viximus.”
“Vanus est qui spem suam ponit in hominibus aut in creaturis. &c.”

The writer as hero

I’m not a fan of the polemic as literature, but Zola’s J’accuse, an open letter to the then French president Félix Faure in light of the Dreyfus affair, ends in a wonderful note: “Je n’ai qu’une passion, celle de la lumière pour l’humanité qui a tant souffert et qui a droit au bonheur. Ma protestation enflamée n’est que le cri de mon âme. Qu’on ose donc me traduire en cour d’assisses et que l’enquête ait lieu au grand jour ! J’attends.”

From David Nichols, One Day

I read One Day because of my shameless crush on Anne Hathaway who played Emma Morley in the book’s film adaptation. The book turned out to be quite good.
I love this passage:
“Excuse me,” he said, “but aren’t you the girl from Ipanema?”
“No, I’m her auntie.”
And this one, too:
“She drinks pints of coffee and writes observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery. The writer, the born writer, will scribble words on scraps of litter, the back of bus tickets, on the wall of a cell. Emma is lost in anything less than 120 gsm.”

A polyglot to a fellow polyglot

Kató Lomb’s Polyglot: How I Learn Languages may sound like one of those terrible self-help guides you regret buying the moment you open it to page one, but it isn’t. In it the author—“the most multilingual woman in the world,” announces the blurb—tells us not how to learn languages but how she learned the languages she speaks. The book gives a lot of insight on the process of learning a third, a fourth, or even a fifth language, and on that focal point when the language learner is trying to decide whether s/he is actually fluent already and thus could say “I can speak X—” with confidence. Her advice: To learn a language, you must read/write/speak it. Never mind if you commit a lot of grammatical errors and native speakers think you are butchering their beautiful tongue. “Languages are the only thing worth knowing even poorly.” And forget your grammar books, or at least don’t stress out on them too much: “Man lernt der Gramatik aus der Sprache, nicht der Sprache aus der Gramatik.”

October

From Sa Antipolo pa rin ang Antipolo:

I’ve heard a lot of naysayers spell out doom for the future of Filipino poetry—and Philippine literature in general. Clearly they haven’t read Abner Dormiendo’s Sa Antipolo pa rin ang Antipolo, a bittersweet love ode to the city of Antipolo and a testament that Filipino poetry is very much alive and vibrant. While Philippine literature isn’t in its best shape, the situation is far from hopeless. These are some of my favourite lines:
From “Sa Antipolo pa rin Ako Naghihintay ng Pagbalik Mo”: “Nakipagpustahan ako sa liwanag ng Kamaynilaan mula dito sa bundok—sino ang kukurap—/at pinusta ang katinuan ko. Alam naman nating/ ang lungsod lagi ang nananalo.”
From “Sa Antipolo Magulo ang Batas-Trapiko”: “Nauutal din pala ang Maynila, at kung sakaling/ pumayag siyang makipag-inuman sa akin/ isang gabi, baka magkasundo kami.”
From “Sa Antipolo Dumaraan ang Fault Line ng Marikina”: “Ang totoo, mahal kita/ sa paraang pati ako ay natatakot. Minsan gusto kong … magpasâ na parang lungsod/ kapag ginugulpi ng maitim na kamao ng gabi.”


Gustave Courbet, Les Cribleuses de blé. Image source: Wikimedia commons.

Borges talks politics

“Many people are in favour of dictatorships because they allow them to avoid thinking for themselves. Everything is presented to them ready-made. There are agencies of the State that supply them with opinions, passwords, slogans, and even idols to exalt or cast down according to the prevailing wind or in keeping with the directives of the thinking heads of the Single Party.”

There are no camels in the Qur’an

Borges said that we know the Qur’an was written by Arabs because there are no camels in it. To them camels are a part of their everyday reality there is no point in calling the reader’s attention to them. With most Filipino writers, though, it’s a different story altogether. It feels like they have this overbearing compulsion to not write a story without carabaos. There must be a carabao, or else the story is not Filipino enough. Which is kinda sad, since there are a lot of other of facets—interesting facets—of “Filipino life” which Filipino writers (or at least those that get published) seem not interested about. I have no problem with reading about a carabao in a short story written by a Filipino author. But God, there are just too many carabaos! Too many that it seems the writers had just added them as an afterthought, to add a touch of exoticism to what would otherwise have been another kitschy, uninteresting tale.

A similar argument runs through Miguel Syjuco’s novel Ilustrado, an interesting investigation of what it means to be Filipino today:

“What is Filipino writing? Living on the margins, a bygone era, loss, exile, poor-me angst, post-colonial identity theft. Tagalog words intermittently scattered for local colour, exotically italicised. … Our heartache for home is so profound we can’t get over it, even when we’re home and never left. Our imaginations grow moss. So every Filipino novel has a scene about the glory of cooking rice, or the sensuality of tropical fruit.”

From Balzac, Le Père Goriot:

“Il a toujours été ainsi. Les moralistes ne le changeront jamais. L’homme est imparfait. Il est parfois plus ou moins hypocrite, et les niais disent alors qu’il a ou n’a pas de moeurs. Je n’accuse pas les riches en faveur du peuple : l’homme est le même en haut, en bas, au milieu.”

From Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror

“Par conséquent âme timide, avant de pénétrer plus loin dans de pareilles landes inexplorées, dirige tes talons en arrière et non en avant. Écoute bien ce que je te dis, dirige tes talons en arrière et non avant.”

November

From Michel Houellebecq, La Carte et le territoire

I picked up the book thinking it was some neo-noir crime thriller and because of that clever Borges reference in the title. There is a murder, but it occurs near the end of the book and this book isn’t even about that:
“Paris est Paris, voyez-vous ? Ce mot explique ma vie.”
(The exotic-looking “Houellebecq” by the way is pronounced like Wellbeck.)

On Faust (again)

You don’t need to have read Faust to appreciate this passage from Romain Gary’s La Promesse de l’aube:
“Il serait temps, d’ailleurs, de dire la vérité sur l’affaire Faust. Tout le monde a menti effrontément là-dessus, Goethe plus que les autres, avec le plus de génie pour camoufler l’affaire et cacher la dure réalité. Là encore, je ne devrais sans doute pas de dire, car s’il y a une chose que je n’aime pas faire, c’est bien enlever leur espoir aux hommes. Mais enfin la véritable tragédie de Faust, ce n’est pas qu’il ait vendu son âme au diable. La véritable tragédie, c’est qu’il n’y a pas de diable pour vous acheter votre âme. Il n’y a pas preneur. Personne ne viendra vous aider saisir la dernière balle, quel que soit le prix que vous y mettiez.”
And here’s an English translation of the last part, because that passage is just so good:
“[T]he tragedy of Faust is not at all that he sold his soul to the devil. The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul. There is no ‘taker.’ No one will help you catch the last ball, no matter what price you are willing to pay.”

I, Prometheus

Another passage from Gary’s Promesse:
“[J]’ai grandi dans l’attente du jour où je pourrais tendre enfin ma main vers le voile qui obscurcissait l’univers et découvrir soudain une visage de sagesse et de pitié ; j’ai voulu disputer, aux dieux absurdes et ivres de leur puissance, la possession du monde, et rendre la terre à ceux qui l’habitent de leur courage et leur amour.”


Egon Schiele, Portrait de Walburga Neuzil (Wally). Image source: Wikimedia commons.

December

Stendhal the cynic

From Le Rouge et le noir: “Le bonheur, pour ces séminaristes comme pour les héros des romans de Voltaire, consiste surtout à bien dîner.”

More Stendhal

“Vous ferez la cour à une femme de la société, mais sans vous donner les apparences de la passion, entendez-vous ? Je ne vous le cache pas, votre rôle est difficile ; vous jouez la comédie, et si l’on devine que vous la jouez, vous êtes perdu.”

From Almeida Garrett, Viagens na minha terra

“Houve aquí há anos um profundo cavo filósofo de Além-Reno, que escreveu uma obra sobre a marcha da civilização do intelecto—o que diríamos, para nos entenderem todos melhor, o Progreso. Descobriu ele que há dois princípios no mundo: o espiritualismo, que marcha sem atender à parte material e terrena desta vida, com os olhos fitos nas suas grandes e abstratos teorias, hirto, seco, duro, inflexível, e que pode bem personalizar-se, simbolizar-se pelo famoso mito do cavaleiro da Mancha, D. Quixote;—o materialismo, que, sem fazer caso nem cabedal dessas teorias, em que não crê, e cujas impossiveis applicações bem representar-se pela rotunda e arrafada presença do nosso amigo velho, Sancho Pança.
“Mas, como na história do malicioso Cervantes, estes dois princípios tão avessos, tão desencontrados, andam contudo juntos sempre; ora um mais atrás, ora outra mais adiante, empecendo-se muitas vezes, coadjuvando poucas, mas progredindo sempre.”

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