Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Best of 2020

Top ten reads of the year
This time each year Old Books by Dead Guys highlights the best books reviewed at this blog over the past twelve months, regardless of when they were published. One would expect that COVID distancing would have allowed more time for reading, but in reality splendid isolation did not yield an increase in books logged. In a typical year, about a quarter of the books I review are audio books, but working at home has cut my commute time down to nothing, so I didn’t get to spend an hour and a half listening to literature five days a week. Old Books by Dead Guys posted 114 reviews this year, about the same as in the past few years. The top ten selections are listed below, arranged chronologically by date of publication. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


Views of Nature by Alexander von Humboldt (1808)
This scientific travel memoir by Prussian explorer Humboldt is the prototype for what we now call “nature writing.” The romantic, literary narrative conveys the sights and sounds of exotic destinations, while extensive notes deliver loads of empirical data from his scientific observations. Humboldt compares similar biomes from different parts of the world in an attempt to draw universal ecological laws. His staggering breadth of knowledge makes this a fascinating read for anyone interested in natural history.

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter (1891)
Written by a member of the German parliament, this novel is an anti-Communist political statement masquerading as a socialist utopia. A revolution installs a socialist government in Berlin. At first all is happiness and cheers for the nation’s bright future and the brotherhood of man, but soon the new regime begins to show signs of ineptness, corruption, and totalitarianism. In addition to the political commentary and satire, Richter delivers a moving story about one family’s struggles under this new world order.

French author Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a series of ten novels charting the life of Jean-Christophe Krafft, a German musical prodigy born to humble beginnings but destined for great things. In English translation, these ten novels are divided into three volumes, the first of which details Jean-Christophe’s childhood and adolescence.

Kallocain by Karin Boye (1940)
This science fiction novel by Swedish poet and author Boye is the fictional memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future, who develops an effective truth serum that aids his society’s tyrannical government in crushing dissent and destroying individuality. Published almost a decade before George Orwell’s 1984, Kallocain is a poignant and prophetic warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. 

One Clear Call by Upton Sinclair (1948)
The ninth volume in Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series follows the American art expert/secret agent through the events of 1943 and 1944. Pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, Lanny gleans intelligence from Hitler and Göring and performs a behind-the-scenes role in preparations for the Normandy landing. Sinclair’s monumental series provides a unique and detailed perspective on the history of the World Wars.

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Half of this book is a beautiful work of nature writing describing the natural history of Leopold’s own private corner of southeastern Wisconsin, reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The other half is a series of important essays on wilderness conservation and wildlife management, Leopold’s areas of expertise. This book is one of America’s foundational texts on ecology and environmentalism, but it’s also an enjoyable and accessible read for nature lovers of all reading levels.

This landmark study is a treasure trove of knowledge on the science of seeing. By synthesizing the research of many psychologists, Arnheim explains how the human eye and brain perceive line, shape, form, space, light, color, and movement, and how artists use such visual phenomena in the creation of art. This is a fundamental textbook for artists and an eye-opening read for art lovers. 

For this greatest hits album, the librarians, curators, and scientists at the American Museum of Natural History selected twenty of their favorite books in the institution’s collection. Each historic volume is represented by selected illustrations and a brief historical essay. The result is a grand and gorgeous tour of the history of natural history from 1551 to the 1920s, including such artists as John James Audubon, Robert Hooke, and Ernst Haeckel. 

Before science fiction was called science fiction, it was called scientific romance. Its undisputed giants were H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but this volume covers authors farther afield, both the famous and the forgotten. The collection includes 27 short stories by American, British, and French authors from the 1830s to World War I. Not only has editor Stableford selected fine stories, he also provides valuable historical context on the genre.

Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals by Luis-Martín Lozano and Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera (2019)
This giant 10" x 15" tome is the most comprehensive and authoritative compendium of the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the modern master of fresco painting. Each mural is documented in detail with numerous large and beautiful photographs, including many fold-outs, accompanied by explanatory diagrams and knowledgeable essays. Rivera’s work has never looked better in print!

Also this year, Old Books by Dead Guys celebrated its 1000th Post! (10 Feb 2020) by taking a detailed look at what’s been covered over the previous eight years.

And the list of reviews by Nobel Prize-winning authors continues to grow:
Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates (a continually updated list)


See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Happy reading in 2021!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay

Downie-centric Hipology, with digressions
The Tragically Hip is arguably Canada’s greatest rock band. They were immensely successful in their homeland for over three decades, though they never reached a high level of renown in the United States. (Though an American, I’m a big fan.) When lead singer Gordon Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2015, the band decided to stage one final tour, which culminated in a farewell concert that became a national event. In his 2018 book The Never-Ending Present, Canadian rock journalist Michael Barclay chronicles the career of The Hip from the band’s inception to Downie’s death and investigates their cultural impact on Canada.

For most of the book’s length, the even-numbered chapters constitute the biographical narrative by detailing the making of an album or two, the accompanying tour(s), and what was going on in the lives of the band members during that time period. The odd-numbered chapters focus on thematic topics and delve into the sort of minutiae that’s usually reserved for Dylanologists’ books on Bob Dylan. Such topics include why The Hip never made it big in America (or did they?), The Hip and hockey, Downie and poetry, Downie and dance. Barclay even includes extensive chapters in which The Hip are barely mentioned, such as a history of Canadian record companies or a lengthy survey of other celebrities who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. When discussing Downie’s project Secret Path, Barclay recounts the history of First Nations residential schools and the Canadian government’s treatment of the Indigenous population. While these topics are interesting and somewhat pertinent to the band, Barclay frequently digresses to excessive lengths, going into a deeper level of trivial detail than necessary for most fans.

Early on, Barclay states that the band members of The Tragically Hip are notoriously guarded about their private lives, and it certainly shows here. Barclay interviewed Downie three times and Gord Sinclair once, but that was back in the early 2000s. He did not interview the band specifically for this book, so most quotes by them are pulled from previous published articles. Barclay did, however, interview just about anyone who ever worked with The Hip, including managers, record producers, musician friends, and opening acts. The result is that you get a lot of information and opinions about The Hip, but it feels like you’re always on the outside looking in. By comparison, much is known about the personal dynamics between The Rolling Stones, but the reader of Barclay’s book gets little insight into the personalities of the band members (other than Downie) and how they relate to one another.

Musicians Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay are not given anywhere near the same consideration as their lead singer. Although in part this is understandably due to Downie’s cancer diagnosis, overall it feels disappointingly unfair. Barclay makes The Hip seem like Downie’s back-up band in much the same way that Martin Scorsese made The Band look like Robbie Robertson’s subordinates in The Last Waltz. Downie’s solo albums are examined with the same thoroughness as Hip recordings, while Baker’s excellent side project Stripper’s Union and Langlois’s fine solo albums are only mentioned in two paragraphs. As a reader who loves the music as much as the voice, I would have liked to learn more about the other four guys.

While reading The Never-Ending Present, I often found myself wishing that Barclay had done things differently. But is there a better book out there on The Hip? Probably not. If nothing else, Barclay’s book will probably stand for years to come as the definitive printed record of the farewell events of 2016, though the tour documentary Long Time Running covers much of the same ground.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Stories of Five Decades by Hermann Hesse

A diverse array of thought-provoking short fiction
To English-language readers, German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse is primarily known as a novelist, but he was also a prolific poet and writer of short stories. Over the course of his career, the Nobel laureate published several volumes of short stories, but only a sampling of his short fiction has been published in English translation in volumes such as Klingsor’s Last Summer, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, and Stories of Five Decades. The latter collection, first published in 1972, contains 23 stories translated by Ralph Mannheim, perhaps the 20th century’s most acclaimed translator of German literature. As the title indicates, the selections in Stories of Five Decades cover a broad time span, including works originally published from 1899 to 1948.

Whether written in the Romantic style of his early career or the more modernist style of his later works, fans of Hesse’s novels will feel right at home in the introspective atmosphere of these stories. Hesse often sets his fiction in idyllic, almost monastic settings, where his protagonists are free to devote themselves to music, poetry, or nature. His interests in Jungian psychology and Eastern mysticism often express themselves in trippy dream sequences and fantastical events. Conflict, when it occurs, is less due to outside forces than to interior turmoil within the mind, or between two opposing minds. “Inside and Outside,” for example, follows the relationship between two educated friends, one devoted to science and the other to magic. The later story “Edmund” continues the theme with a professor and student who study world religions, one as an objective observer of ceremony and ritual, the other as a willing participant. In “Dream Journeys,” a frustrated writer struggles to find a medium between literature and dreams, while in “Robert Aghion,” an English missionary weighs Christian and pagan beliefs.

Hesse frequently expresses a disdain for the modern world and its arts. He harkens back fondly to the Romantic Era, the Middle Ages, and ancient times. Today’s artists and writers, in Hesse’s view, futilely struggle to achieve the heights of the “great poets” of the past. The modern world is a realm of violence, noise, and insanity that only deserves to be lamented or satirized. In “An Evening with Dr. Faust,” the title character devises a means of hearing sounds from the future, only to find that his future (our present) is chaos and madness. The 1907 story “The Wolf” is a realistic look at a wolf’s struggle for survival in a harsh world, man being its greatest adversary. Here Hesse celebrates primordial nature while expressing regret over dubious “civilization.” In his 1927 story, “Harry, the Steppenwolf,” a companion piece to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, a wolf held captive in a zoo becomes an anthropomorphic symbol of nonconformity and dissent. Other stories that express reservations about modernity are “The City,” a wonderful biography of a fictional city that points out the transitory insignificance of mankind, and “Walter Kömpff,” in which the title character finds his life confined by the strictures of a capitalist society.

The 23 entries in this collection cover a fascinating array of diverse subjects and styles, including realistic scenes of German life, historical fiction, mythic fairy tales, and hints of science fiction. Some stories come across as incomplete sketches, a few feel like scenes pulled out of context, and a couple might be considered failed experiments. Nevertheless, fans of Hesse’s novels will enjoy this collection. The overall effect is like paging through the sketchbook of a master artist. The well-selected contents give the reader an impressive panoramic view of the author’s wide breadth of interests and prodigious depth of talent.

Stories in this collection

The Island Dream
Incipit vita nova
To Frau Gertrud
November Night
The Marble Works
The Latin Scholar
The Wolf
Walter Kömpff
The Field Devil
Chagrin d’Amour
A Man by the Name of Ziegler
The Homecoming
The City
Robert Aghion
The Cyclone
From the Childhood of Saint Francis of Assisi
Inside and Outside
Dream Journeys
Harry, the Steppenwolf
An Evening with Dr. Faust
The Interrupted Class

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Friday, December 18, 2020

Pay Envelopes: Tales of the Mill, the Mine and the City Street by James Oppenheim

Chicken soup for the proletariat’s soul
James Oppenheim
James Oppenheim was an American author, poet, and the founding editor of the literary magazine The Seven Arts. Though his work may not be quite journalistic enough to be classed among the muckraker movement in American literature, Oppenheim frequently wrote about social issues like labor struggles, women’s suffrage, and the pacifist opposition to World War I. His book Pay Envelopes, published in 1911, is a collection of eleven short stories, all of which depict workers and their struggles under brutal hours, unfair wages, and squalid living conditions. In a preface, Oppenheim explains that these stories are his attempt to elevate the plight of laborers to something approaching high art. The problem with this collection is that Oppenheim uses a bit too much artistic license. He often veers away from the frank realism of authors like Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser and ventures into sappy melodrama and rosy optimism.

For the most part, the workers depicted are laborers in steel mills. Pittsburgh is the setting of at least four of the stories. A couple others take place in New York City. One is set in a coal mining town, and the rest take place in unspecified urban centers. Outside of the blue-collar milieu, an office clerk and a medical student are featured, but both still live in poverty. In many cases, the protagonists of the stories are not the workers themselves but rather the women who love them.

At times, like Sinclair or Norris, Oppenheim brilliantly illustrates the harsh living and working environments of working-class and poverty-stricken citizens forced into pre-New Deal wage slavery. The problem, however, is that brutal reality isn’t good enough for Oppenheim. As one reads this collection, a repetitive pattern to the stories soon emerges. Relentless demoralizing toil turns the men into brutes who succumb to alcoholism, philandering, spousal abuse, and sloth. The women are typically martyrs who not only put up with this abuse but also sometimes support the family financially through their own hard work. Arguments ensue. Blows are struck. Suicide is contemplated. Destitution looms on the horizon. In the end, however, everyone makes up and realizes that love conquers all, even though none of their problems have been solved. Life sucks, but we’ll get through it together!

There are exceptions to the monotony. “Joan of the Mills” is the most overtly socialistic story, calling to mind Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As in that novel, one of the things Oppenheim does well is to give sympathetic voice to the “Hunky,” a dated nickname for Hungarian or Slavic immigrants, who star in a handful of stories. The coal mining tale, “Stiny Bolinsky,” is another fine entry about a child laborer and a Lewis Hine-style photographer/reformer.

The main fault with Pay Envelopes is Oppenheim’s penchant for unrealistic happy endings. If Jack London had written this book, most of the protagonists would have committed suicide. If Frank Norris had written it, they would have died of tuberculosis or stab wounds. If Upton Sinclair had written it, they would have been imprisoned or shot as martyrs for waving the red flag in socialist party demonstrations. All of these options would have been more inspiring, exciting, and meaningful than the safe conclusions offered by Oppenheim, in which his characters aren’t any better off than when they started, just more contentedly resigned to their fates. Is that really the message Oppenheim wanted to send to workers? Just be happy with the hand you’ve been dealt, and everything will work out all right? Since I enjoy realist fiction of the muckraker era, I had high hopes for Pay Envelopes, but it ultimately proved disappointingly mediocre.

Stories in this collection
The Great Fear 
Saturday Night
The Cog 
A Woman 
Joan of the Mills 
The Empty Life
The Young Man 
The Broken Woman 
Stiny Bolinsky

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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Alexander von Humboldt: How the Most Famous Scientist of the Romantic Age Found the Soul of Nature by Maren Meinhardt

An intellectual history of Humboldt and Romanticism
Alexander von Humboldt has undergone a renaissance of late. Many books on the Prussian scientist and explorer have been published in recent years. Maren Meinhardt’s biography Alexander von Humboldt: How the Most Famous Scientist of the Romantic Age Found the Soul of Nature was released in America in 2019, after being published the previous year in England under the title of A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things. Unlike older biographies that attempted comprehensive cradle-to-grave coverage, such as those by Karl Bruhns (1873) or Helmut de Terra (1955), most recent books on Humboldt tend to emphasize one aspect or period of his career. Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (2015), for example, focuses on Humboldt’s influence on ecology and environmentalism, while The Passage to Cosmos (2009) by Laura Dassow Walls stresses his impact on American identity and culture. Gerard Helferich’s Humboldt’s Cosmos (2004) is a detailed recounting of the explorer’s expedition to the Americas, while Myron Echenberg’s Humboldt’s Mexico (2017) narrows in on his time in New Spain, and Sandra Rebok’s Humboldt and Jefferson (2014) does the same for his stopover in the United States. Meinhardt’s Alexander von Humboldt is very much an intellectual history of Humboldt. She is interested in how his educational and social experiences shaped the man and formed his views on the natural world. Intellectually, Humboldt combined the best qualities of German Romanticism and the French Enlightenment. While Rebok’s work concentrates on Humboldt as an Enlightenment thinker, Meinhardt highlights Humboldt as a student and exponent of Romanticism.

The strongest portion of Meinhardt’s book is her examination of Humboldt’s upbringing, education, and early career, prior to the American expedition that made him famous. Many biographers mention the Humboldt brothers’ influential tutor Carl Sigismund Kunth, but few delve into the succession of Alexander’s other tutors and teachers with the level of detail that Meinhardt does. She constantly establishes Humboldt as the center of a web of intellectual intercourse. We not only learn about his friends, but the friends of his friends, and how ideas and influence flowed back and forth among them. Meinhardt also provides commendable coverage of Humboldt’s tenure as a mining inspector and how his dissatisfaction in that field influenced his decision to become a naturalist and explorer.

If you are unfamiliar with Humboldt and his accomplishments, I would not recommend this as your first biography of the man. Wulf and Helferich’s books are more accessible. Meinhardt’s scholarly rigor is admirable, but her writing is not for novices. She doesn’t hold back on her highbrow references to German history and Romantic literature. If what you really want to learn about are Humboldt’s travels and scientific discoveries, you probably don’t need to know about his participation in Jewish salons in Berlin, his friendship with the von Haeften family, or his affinity with the novels of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Those who have read other books on Humboldt, however, will find here many interesting details and anecdotes neglected by other recent biographies. Meinhardt’s book is a relatively brief, condensed, and concise account of Humboldt’s life and career. Even though much of the book is devoted to Humboldt’s time in South America, the expedition narrative feels a bit rushed and cursory. On the other hand, when it comes to Humboldt’s position within the German Romanticist movement and his network of contacts therein, Meinhardt is quite thorough. Her erudite account of Humboldt’s life is a valuable contribution to Humboldt studies.

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Monday, December 14, 2020

The Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Esoteric observations in perplexing prose
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the most important figure of German Romanticism and a polymath who excelled in multiple fields. Not only was he perhaps the greatest man of letters in German history, he was also a philosopher, a statesman, an artist, and a scientist. Among his scientific writings, his book The Theory of Colours was published in 1810. It was written partially as a response to Isaac Newton’s analytical studies of color, which yielded the ROYGBIV theory that white light is in fact composed of all colors in the visible spectrum, as shown when refracted through a prism. Goethe, being a Romanticist, was less concerned with the physical nature of color but rather with the human eye’s perception and human mind’s conception of color. In addressing the physiology of human vision, largely ignored by Newton, Goethe’s Theory of Colours proved influential not only to scientists but also to philosophers, poets, and painters.

Goethe organizes his analyses of color phenomena into a rigid structure of progressive sections encompassing 920 numbered paragraphs. Unlike Newton, who examined color as a phenomenon independent of human perception, Goethe the humanist begins his study with the eye and proceeds outward. He first discusses what he calls “physiological colors,” which arise from the eye itself. For example, when one stares at a red object and then looks at a white wall, the eye perceives a green after image. Goethe examines many such optical illusions in great detail before proceeding to “physical colors,” which involve hues that arise through the use of prisms, lenses, cameras obscura and the like. The third part discusses “chemical colors,” detailing the ways in which colors can be brought forth, augmented, or fixated in certain substances through chemical processes. Subsequent sections cover topics such as the emotions generated by colors and the use of pigments in dying and painting. While the chapter structure looks very ordered in the table of contents, in the actual text it often feels counterintuitive and veers into digressions. To categorize his observations, Goethe invents confusing terminology like dioptrical, catoptrical, and epoptical colors, and even his use of the words objective and subjective is puzzlingly atypical.

Goethe created several plates of colored diagrams for this book, and often refers to them in his text. Public domain editions might not include these illustrations, but they can be found online through a Google image search. Goethe’s color wheel looks much the same as modern color wheels you’ve seen. In fact, he originated the idea of complementary colors that reside on opposite sides of the wheel. When verbally describing his scheme of color, however, Goethe’s ideas are much more confusing. Rather than three primary colors, Goethe proposes only two: yellow and blue. While admitting that green arises from the mixture between the two, he also asserts that somehow red is an intermediary between blue and yellow, a perplexing concept that defies not only the physics of the visible spectrum but also the perceptual logic of human vision.

Overall, Goethe’s prose is so confusing it’s often difficult to get any useful meaning out of many of his numbered paragraphs. Much of the blame for this, however, must fall upon the 1840 English translator Charles Lock Eastlake. Goethe’s Theory of Colours was no doubt an important and groundbreaking work for its time, but its value to today’s readers is questionable. The physics of light has come a long way in the past two centuries, so the science is only valuable for its commendable historical significance. Nowadays, this book will probably only be of interest to artists looking for some arcane wisdom on color use, of which they will find little of practical worth. Readers interested in the physiological and psychological science of color would be better off reading a more recent text like Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception.

Illustrated plates from Goethe’s The Theory of Colours.

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