Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nathan der Weise

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
First Published: 1779

On the train, as I was travelling around southern Germany this past week, I read Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), a play that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote in 1778. From what I've heard, it's famous here, whereas it has never crossed my path in English books or articles. It is a true Enlightenment work, as a strong spirit of tolerance animates the whole, and a true 18th-century work, as the dramatist attempts to depict the most refined and exalted sentiments. To the extent that these sentiments are pure, unmixed, and histrionic, they are not true to life nor have ever been, and what has borne the vicissitudes of time and taste much better is the tolerance, as the question of peaceful coexistence among religions is as perplexing today as ever.

The hero of the story is Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant who lives in Jerusalem in the time of Saladin. He returns from a long journey to find that his home was on fire, but a Knight Templar had rescued his daughter. So he endeavours to make the acquaintance of the knight, and wants to present him with any assistance in his power. At first the knight is scornful, but then he is conquered by the magnanimity of Nathan, and agrees to become friends. Curd von Stauffen, for that is the rescuer's name, is then strangely attracted by the daughter whom he saved, and wants to marry her. One obstacle is that the daughter, with her finer instincts, is aware that she is not in love with the Templar. Another is that the two are brother and sister; Nathan suspects this and therefore holds back the parties who are eager to see them married, among them his daughter's maid, who believes that her mistress has no hope of heaven if she does not become a Christian. This plot element is disturbing, as (evidently) who knows what might have happened, but I think that Lessing weaves it in as part of the theme of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

There are many lesser threads to the narrative, for instance Saladin's debts as well as the friendship of Nathan and a dervish turned Saladin's treasurer, but the warp and woof of the plot are the way that prejudices are formed and disproven once the characters communicate and interact with one another. Representatives of each religion, Christianity and Judaism and Islam, evince generosity and forgiveness and loyalty, and the sole villain of the tale is the Patriarch, who is a hidebound hypocrite. Also, I am not sure why – though one explanation is that people at that time, socially as well as singly, took a very conscious aesthetic pleasure in fine morality, as they might in a fine painting or an exquisite dessert – but the characters in 18th-century moral tales (e.g. Samuel Richardson's Pamela) indulge in a great deal of public and mutual praise, and Nathan der Weise is no exception.

In my view, the play is weakened by central contradictions. For instance, Nathan is intended to be quiet, modest, and simple, but Lessing wants to display his character; so in a sense Nathan is the opposite of quiet, modest, and simple, as he must bare his every thought and feeling in the overstrained idiom of the stage. Also, he is intended to be a real character, founded on Moses Mendelssohn, and still the world of characters in which he is placed is composed of the artificial (and irritating) stock characters of 18th-century fiction and drama. The plot itself is not so original or restrained, either, given, for instance, the long-lost family device. But this device fits, again, into the theme of brotherhood; also, I surmise that mysterious parentage busied the minds of Lessing's contemporaries for a good reason, as people slept around secretly a great deal in those days, so myriad illegitimate children lived without knowing their parents or siblings.

* * *

Apart from the Parable of the Ring (which I wish to write about on Sunday), two passages struck me pleasantly in the play:

Templar: "Let time in its course, / And not curiosity, make our acquaintance."*
"Laßt die Zeit allmählich, / Und nicht die Neugier, unsre Kundschaft machen." (Act II, Sc. vii)

Sittah: "Every detail, too much / Despised, avenges herself, Brother."
"Jede Kleinigkeit, zu sehr / Verschmäht, die rächt sich, Bruder." (Act III, Sc. iv)

Nathan der Weise, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Stuttgart: Reclam, 1970

Nathan the Wise (Text in middling English translation)
Nathan der Weise (Text in original German)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Brief biography, overview of works, links)

*Approximate translations mine.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Old Rose and Silver

When I was in my second year at university, I wanted to look up books that had been referenced in the forewords and footnotes and text of Jane Austen's novels, for example Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, and in Louisa May Alcott's novels, for example The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge and The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. Not all of these books were to my taste, but the quest for them introduced me to the books at Project Gutenberg. For two years, then, I whiled away the leisure hours after my courses or at home by exploring the lists. Now (though to a lesser degree than two years ago) I peregrinate through the alphabet, largely reading romances from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but plunging into non-fiction and criticism whenever a dutiful mood strikes.

My most recent reading was Old Rose and Silver, a novel published in 1909 by Myrtle Reed. It is a satisfactory specimen of romance as friendly and sincere kitsch. (Of the author's other books, Lavender and Old Lace* is nice, more restrained, but less interesting.) Like all good romances, it is equally pleasant as serious sentiment and as unintentional satire. The characters around whom the tale revolves are Aunt Francesca, an idealized little old lady of refinement and wit and fine calibre; her niece Rose, a forty-year-old woman who is a warm and vibrant personality; Isabel, a twenty-year-old girl who has a gaping deficiency where her understanding (in the 18th-century sense of a good intellectual grasp) and sympathy should be; Colonel Kent, a friend of Aunt Francesca's deceased husband; and Colonel Kent's son, Allison, a thirty-year-old violinist. Then there are their neighbours, the Crosby twins, who are good-hearted and full of childish adventurousness and impracticality, and who are evidently intended to furnish comic relief.

Rose lives with Aunt Francesca, as her parents have died, and Isabel joins them because her mother (in an unsubtle authorial dig against suffragism) has renounced the joys and sacred duties of womanliness and instead passes a loveless and useless existence lecturing on women's rights and neglecting her daughter. Then Colonel Kent and his son return from Europe. Rose and Allison bond in soul as they play the violin and piano together, and the authoress indulges in picturesque passages on the emotional transcendence of the musical art, but Allison is oblivious and is infatuated with Isabel (who is cold as a fish) instead. Allison and Isabel are engaged, but then a car accident occurs and Allison's hand is crushed. As he may no longer be able to use the hand, and therefore have no violinist's career, and therefore have no money, Isabel drops him. And then the plot curve descends in a leisurely manner from this climax to the happy dénouement.

The novelesqueness is truly funny. The tale, in a chapter pensively entitled "A Falling Star," begins with these purple paragraphs:
The last hushed chord died into silence, but the woman lingered, dreaming over the keys. Firelight from the end of the room brought red-gold gleams into the dusky softness of her hair and shadowed her profile upon the opposite wall. No answering flash of jewels met the questioning light--there was only a mellow glow from the necklace of tourmalines, quaintly set, that lay upon the white lace of her gown.

She turned her face toward the fire as a flower seeks the sun, but her deep eyes looked beyond it, into the fires of Life itself. A haunting sense of unfulfilment stirred her to vague resentment, and she sighed as she rose and moved restlessly about the room. She lighted the tall candles that stood upon the mantel-shelf, straightened a rug, moved a chair, and gathered up a handful of fallen rose-petals on her way to the window. She was about to draw down the shade, but, instead, her hand dropped slowly to her side, her fingers unclasped, and the crushed crimson petals fluttered to the floor.
The authoress employs this leitmotif of roses with a Wagnerian dedication, and it is cloying. But the descriptions of her female characters' habiliments do remind me of the pretend-games my sister and I played when we were smaller, inventing maidens with long chestnut or golden hair on whom we duly bestowed gowns and flowers and gems in well-chosen palettes (green dresses with gold borders, emerald jewellery, gold slippers, and lilies of the valley, etc.). Miss Reed writes "her sole ornaments were," and then she launches into a flood of amethysts, heliotrope, golden roses, etc.

One less innocent novelesque convention that she employs is blackening the character of another woman to make the heroine (Rose) look better in comparison. This practice is despicable, I think. In this case poor Isabel is the victim. Also, I doubt, cinematic and literary romances to the contrary, that men often are presented with a choice of two women who so precisely illustrate the opposite moral poles. As for Allison Kent, he is nice, generous, and unobserving — not entirely a blank screen on which the author lets the reader project her own fantasies — and I suppose there are people like him in real life, but it is pathetic how everyone around him controls the action while he is naïf and passive.

Lastly, I enjoy the profound remarks that the authoress has carefully attributed to her characters, which invariably bear an implicit label: Deep Thought Here. She also philosophizes in her capacity as narrator. In a temple-and-shrine analogy, she theorizes that women can only truly love one person, and that if their love is unrequited or destroyed, there is no renewal; whereas men can truly love many persons, and rebound quickly if one of their loves doesn't work out. Though I can't speak from personal experience, I'm sure this is wrong. There is a discussion on the subject at the end of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I agree with her assessment that the forcibly homebound lives of women in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that they did not have as many distractions (or opportunities to develop their characters further) as men did, to save them from useless brooding and to help them move on with their lives. Nor do I think that men hop from one relationship to another quite so briskly.

* * *
His first notes came with a clearness and authority for which she was wholly unprepared. She followed the accompaniment almost perfectly, but mechanically, lost as she was in the wonder and delight of his playing. The exquisite harmony seemed to be the inmost soul of the violin, speaking at last, through forgotten ages, of things made with the world--Love and Death and Parting. Above it and through it hovered a spirit of longing, infinite and untranslatable, yet clear as some high call.

Subtly, Rose answered to it. In some mysterious way, she seemed set free from bondage. Unsuspected fetters loosened; she had a sense of largeness, of freedom which she had never known before. She was quivering in an ecstasy of emotion when the last chord came.

For an instant there was silence, then Isabel spoke. "How well you play!" she said politely.
P.S.: According to a recent article at, the black-and-white film Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre, was named in parody of Lavender and Old Lace.

Myrtle Reed - Biography and Works

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday: The Spider

After finding the Catholic Bible readings for today, and not finding them any good in my evidently not-so-humble opinion, I have stepped over temporarily to the Other Side. So I will discourse of one and a half verses in our Koran (Oxford University Press, 1983), which was nicely translated by Arthur J. Arberry (1905-69). The verses in question form the beginning of the chapter, or sura, known as "The Spider."
Do the people reckon that they will be left to say
'We believe,' and will not be tried?
We certainly tried those that were before them,
and assuredly God knows those who speak truly,
and assuredly He knows the liars.
Or do they reckon, those who do evil deeds, that
they will outstrip Us? Ill they judge!
Whoso looks to encounter God, God's term is coming;
He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.

Whosoever struggles, struggles only to his
own gain; surely God is All-sufficient
nor needs any being.
And those who believe, and do righteous deeds,
We shall surely acquit them of their evil
deeds, and shall recompense them the best of
what they were doing.
What struck me first is how very like the New Testament, or other Christian texts, these verses are. Lines 10-12 are echoes of Milton's in "On His Blindness" — "God doth not need / Either man's work or his own gifts." — or, as the Koran is the older text, rather vice versa. What also struck me was that the verses are agreeably mild, as religious texts generally have no shortage of blood-and-thunder passages.

There are two points, to diverge from literary criticism to theological criticism (if one can dignify my musings with that name), with which I take issue. The first is the concept of God testing his believers. If one argues that He is omniscient, it must follow that He already knows how people would respond to the trial. As for the trial of Job, it is hard to believe much in a God who would kill off a family and use the paterfamilias as a guinea pig in order to settle an argument with Old Nick. So, in my view, there are far more convincing ways to account for the presence of trouble in the world. But, oddly, even Voltaire accepts the concept, as he writes in Zadig, "il n'y a point de hasard: tout est épreuve ou punition, ou récompense ou prévoyance."*

The second point is that I don't believe that good deeds should be an alibi for bad deeds, though perhaps the underlying statement is that people who do bad deeds should not have to fear eternal damnation if they strive to do well.

Altogether there are no passages in these verses that will linger happily in my memory, like "Blessed are the meek," and yet the assurance that good will prevail is, I guess, heartening.

*"There is no such thing as chance; everything is a test or punishment, or reward or admonition."

"The Persian or the Scholar?" (Time article on Arthur J. Arberry, 1950)
The Koran (Index of links to Koran chapters)
"The Koran" (Encyclopaedia entry on the Koran)

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Friday Miscellany: The Dis-Consolations of Philosophy

Books currently lying at the head of my bed, from easiest to hardest to finish for me.

Towers in the Mist, Elizabeth Goudge
First Published: 1938

A historical novel set in the time of Elizabeth I. If it's at all like the author's other books, it will delve into religion and superstition, the hidden depths of the human character, and the beauties and past of the English landscape. I think that "mysticism" is a fitting term for her worldview. What is fascinating in her modern novels, for instance the children's book Linnets and Valerians, is that they depict the twilight of the old British rural microcosm before the onset of American-style modernity. Her great flaws are that she is prone to kitsch and unremitting in her endeavour to "[find] tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing." Aside from that, she is an astoundingly good writer. I've reached Chapter 2. (Biography, list of works)
"Poetry, childhood, memory" (Blog entry on Elizabeth Goudge's writing)


Micromégas, Voltaire
First Published: 1752

[The following is written in French because I want to use the language more often; hopefully this will not bother anyone. Apologies in advance for grammatical and other errors.]
Une courte histoire philosophique qui raconte, j'imagine, la vie d'un géant qui habite une planète de l'étoile Sirius. Le serviable Voltaire, dans une succession de paragraphes qui fourmille de chiffres et de précisions autant que cet oeuvre de Jules Verne qui s'appelle De la terre à la lune (un livre que j'ai lu fidèlement jusqu'à la fin — malgré le fait que ni les obus, ni les clubs scientifiques qui ne sont que de pompeux assemblés d'hommes qui n'ont rien de mieux à faire, m'intéressent beaucoup — mais qui m'a trahi en me laissant confuse et énervée par cette fin qui n'est pas une fin du tout), nous dit qu'il a huit lieues de longueur. Je souhaite passer plein d'heures heureuses en restant assidûment ignorante des implications philosophiques, et en me réjouissant au lieu de cela de l'imagination fort vive de Voltaire, au niveau le moins intellectuel que possible. À ce moment, je suis à la deuxième page (formidable, n'est-ce pas?).

Micromégas (Liens aux textes électroniques du livre)
Voltaire (Biography and list of works)
Voltaire's Page (Link to biographies, works, etc.)


Haydn, Rosemary Hughes
First Published: 1950

A biography of the composer, which begins at the beginning — in the true "I was born of poor but honest parents . . ." vein — and properly trots through, as far as I can tell, to the end. It is accessibly written, well researched, and academic; and, as in duty bound for the sake of the reader, the author gently attempts to put herself in the shoes of Haydn, infuse humour and sympathy, and depict the ambient time and place. My quibble with this approach is that it is fairly unoriginal and too careful. What I particularly like about our copy, a nice beige clothbound edition, is the very brief notes and underlinings that my great-aunt pencilled in. I'm on the third chapter.

JSTOR: Haydn (First page of a review in the journal Music & Letters, 1950)


Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel
First Published: 1995

A pleasantly written and detailed account of the search for a trustworthy way of determining one's location at sea, which consumed the attention of the eighteenth-century scientific establishment and the monarchs who patronized it, until the clockmaker John Harrison finally achieved it by inventing a reliable chronometer. (The required mathematical feats much resemble the ones that Cyrus Harding performs to find the latitude and longitude of Verne's Mysterious Island.) It's also a commentary on the intriguing and fanciful dead ends that scientific research pursues before a lone and embattled figure discovers a way out of the labyrinth. Among the anecdotes, the tale of Sir Clowdisley (I'd always seen it as Cloudsley) Shovell, the admiral whose fleet was wrecked and whose men were worse than decimated on the Scilly Islands in 1707, is in my view scarcely inferior to that of Coriolanus or any other Shakespearean tragic hero. Lastly and incidentally, Dava Sobel's style, and my quibbles regarding it, resembles that of Rosemary Hughes.

Dava Sobel
(Website of the author)
"The Longitude Problem" (Author's article on same subject)
NYT Books: Longitude (Review, viz. synopsis)


Philosophie der Geschichte, G.W.F. Hegel
First Published: 1837

Hegel is, I've found, a forgiving philosopher. He has been my bedtime reading for a while, not because he is easier to read than other authors, but because in a drowsy state I am often more focused and less likely to (metaphorically speaking) chuck away a book in exasperation and do something fun instead. By this means I read all of Shakespeare's plays, except for King John, by the age of eighteen (but I still have no idea what Henry IV is about).

So the first six pages of Hegel's introduction to Philosophie der Geschichte went swimmingly, but then I recognized that it was gibberish to me after all. Now I'm on the eighth page. It's true that the structure of the introduction is clear enough; he classifies the ways one can write a historical work — reporting events, philosophizing about the events, presenting the events in the context of a country or a theme, etc. But this classification is not very helpful, except in making one think (about the purpose of historiography, I suppose), because it is imposed on reality, not integral to it; other people find other categories far more useful, and I don't know if Hegel's are authoritative.

In his History of Western Philosophy, it is evident that Bertrand Russell doesn't have much use for Hegel. (One problem is, I think, that Russell succumbs to the fallacy of blaming everyone from Plato to — well, Hegel, for the 20th-century rise of fascism. Not blaming, exactly, but interpreting their ideas as proto-fascism.) As far as the Philosophie der Geschichte is concerned, he begins by explaining that Hegel divides German history as falling into three periods, where Charlemagne and the Reformation are the watershed events. Then Hegel names these periods the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Russell's comment, admittedly with reason, is this:
It seems a little odd that the Kingdom of the Holy Ghost should have begun with the bloody and utterly abominable atrocities committed in suppressing the Peasants' War, but Hegel, naturally, does not mention so trivial an accident. Instead, he goes off, as might be expected, into praises of Machiavelli.
Quotation from History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell (London: Unwin, 1984), p.708

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tristram Shandy

by Laurence Sterne
First Published: 1759-67

With some trepidation I took up our inglorious paperback copy of Tristram Shandy last night, as the prospect of reading it by this evening was daunting given its girth. (As a matter of fact, I have only reached the 95th page.) Besides, I find 18th-century literature strenuous in its long-windedness and relentless artillery of mirth and pathos, and Sterne's writing is no exception. But after a while, the pleasure of his eponymous hero's ramblings (for me, he hits his stride in Vol. II, Ch. 3) eclipses the urge to reach through space and time, and gently but convincingly throttle the author until he agrees to cease his rambling and get to the point.

Sterne piles one clause on top of another into a great heap of a sentence whose structure is hard to follow. If Emily Dickinson — as someone said — "stitches" together her phrases with em-dashes, Sterne bastes them, in a sloppy but endearing way. I imagine that he would be immensely entertaining to hear in an inn, after a tankard or two of beer, at which point it seems as if not much would be required to loosen his tongue. In print, he does have the virtue of keeping his chapters mercifully short, and his dedication is likely the most readable I've ever encountered.
To the Right Honourable



Never poor Wight of a Dedicator had less hopes from his Dedication than I have from this of mine; for it is written in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retired thatched house, where I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, — but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life. [. . .]
Tristram Shandy tells anecdotes of his parents, his uncle, a parson, a midwife, and many others; muses about living on another planet; and reprints the amusing findings of a French inquiry into the baptism of unborn children (by injecting holy water into the birth canal). Then he philosophizes on everything, from the significance of names, to the bad habit of reading a book solely for the "juicy bits" instead of absorbing and pondering the wisdom of the author at leisure. My amusement at this point was feeble, as authors may often be at fault for self-indulgently writing "loose, baggy monsters." Besides, I prefer authorial didactism that is gently woven into the tale, not forced into my face.

But the first volume of Tristram Shandy greatly irritated me. A chatty superego prods and prods the reader, like a truly infuriating comic figure who keeps on popping up in the course of a play, screaming "I am funny!" with every word and gesture, and commenting on the action until the only civilized and human response is to pelt him with tomatoes. That this self-consciousness is self-consciously and satirically done doesn't make the matter better. I want to become absorbed in the story, and when an author tosses me from one narrative stratum to another, and moreover intrudes upon my mental privacy by presuming to tell me how I (should) think and react, he renders me indignant and grumbly. Nevertheless, de gustibus . . .

In the end, the charm and richness of the tale have conquered my annoyance. Not the least of this charm is the fact that Sterne's humour is often broad, but so politely broad that even I, who internally growled at the innuendo in Voltaire's Ingénu when I started it this morning, haven't taken offense.

* * *
De gustibus non est disputandum; — that is, there is no disputing against HOBBY-HORSES; and, for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the Moon, to be both fiddler and painter, according as the fly stings: — Be it known to you that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon which, in their turns (nor do I care who knows it), I frequently ride out and take the air; — though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journeys than what a wise man would think altogether right.
Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
New York: Airmont, 1967 (p. 22)

* * *

An Experimental Novel: Sterne's Tristram Shandy (Concise treatments of influences, characters, plot, etc.)
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy (Concise treatments of plot, critical reception, author's biography, etc.)
Project Gutenberg: Tristram Shandy (Links to full e-texts of book)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Murder Must Advertise

by Dorothy L. Sayers
First Published: 1933

In Murder Must Advertise, the reader is promptly plunged into the milieu of a London publicity firm in the 1930s. Slangy and hypereducated, the employees talk at a rapid pace that brings to mind the clacking of a typewriter, and drop in literary quotations as they go. Dorothy Sayers sets up a work environment that is in a constant state of flux as the copy-writers, editors, artists, owners, and clients visit each other in their offices, chat, and argue. Death Bredon, a new employee who is replacing Victor Dean, is plunged into this milieu, too, and soon feels at home. He is quickly absorbed in the absurdities of his work, and in navigating the niceties of phrasing that must be attuned to the odd sensitivities of the clients.

But there are grim realities underlying the bustle. Victor Dean, who was not overly beloved, had died by falling down an iron staircase. There were three witnesses, and yet Bredon is not convinced that it was an accident. The victim had ties to the Dian de Momerie circle, where drugs, drink, and debauchery are the order of the day, and it is soon clear that he was murdered.

Altogether the book moves swiftly, though the dialogue is at times mystifying (what does "ack emma" mean?), and gives glimpses not only of the office, but also of the quiet family circle of the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard and of the nocturnal excursions of Dian de Momerie. It is intellectually rigorous, too, for a book in a genre whose purported end is entertainment. What is disturbing is, I find, an underlying coldness, which is hard to pinpoint. For instance, Death Bredon is (for whatever reason) attractive to women, and he exploits this for his investigations. It's not that he doesn't have sympathetic moods, but sympathy is certainly not the determining trait in his behaviour. He is often coolly callous, and he does leave destruction in his wake. There is not much justice in making people suffer as collateral damage in pursuit of the Truth.

* * *

"The very work that engaged him [. . .] wafted him into a sphere of dim platonic archetypes, bearing a scarcely recognisable relationship to anything in the living world. Here those strange entities, the Thrifty Housewife, the Man of Discrimination, the Keen Buyer and the Good Judge, for ever young, for ever handsome, for ever virtuous, economical and inquisitive, moved to and fro upon their complicated orbits, comparing prices and values, making tests of purity, asking indiscreet questions about each others' ailments, household expenses, bedsprings, shaving cream, diet, laundry work and boots, perpetually spending to save and saving to spend, cutting out coupons and collecting cartons, surprising husbands with margarine and wives with patent washers and vacuum cleaners, occupied from morning to night in washing, cooking, dusting, filing, saving their children from germs, their complexions from wind and weather, their teeth from decay and their stomachs from indigestion [. . .]"

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers
London: New English Library, 1984, pp. 152-53

* * *

Dorothy L. Sayers (Commentary on her works)
Dorothy L. Sayers (Biography)
Dorothy L. Sayers Archive (Annotated bibliography)

Lighting of the Beacon

When I was little, one of the historical institutions that fascinated me was the Library at Alexandria. It was built by one of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, in the 3rd century BC, and came to hold the greatest collection of scrolls in the world at that time, until its destruction by fire during Caesar's campaign against Ptolemy XIII. I thought of it as an emblem of every book and artwork that is lost in the course of time, to become a scholarly Holy Grail or a lost opportunity altogether.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, famous as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was built in the same generation and the same city, and suffered a parallel fate. In a hopefully un-shaky piece of association, I'm using it as the title of my blog to symbolize the illumining powers of the written word. Whether one always obtains deep wisdoms or insights out of the books one reads is questionable, but at least the ideal is there.

But, to turn from generalities to specifics, I intend this blog to be a book review website. I've thought out the following schedule:

Monday: Children's literature, or romance
Tuesday: Contemporary literature, or premodern literature
Wednesday: Crime novel, or thriller
Thursday: Literary canon
Friday: Books in progress (i.e. books I've started but probably won't finish)
Saturday: Week's newspaper and magazine articles in review
Sunday: Chapters of theological works

It will require me to steadily keep my nose in a book and to the grindstone, but hopefully I can reconcile the metaphors.