Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Category: books

Books I have read this year

There is a story that kept me busy for a large part of Winter and early Spring this year. I started reading it at the same time as I began my bike trainings, which explains why it is one of the things that I associate most closely to my first race, the Strade Bianche in Siena. I arrived in town the afternoon before the race. After having collected my equipment at the historical fortress – the race number, the chip, all that stuff – I rode to my hotel, which was located outside the city centre. It was then that I got completely lost, riding in the dark in the middle of a three-track speedway under a violent thunderstorm. When I arrived to the hotel, at 7PM, I was soaked and tired. I spent the next four hours reading about the betrayal of Edmond Dantès. It was the best possible way to prepare for the race. In the following months I brought the book with me to Spain and to Switzerland and I finished reading it only days after the Gran Fondo of Fiesole. The book is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

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Looking back at them now, I realise that most of the books I have read this year are classics that have been translated into a language that is something else than English. Ernest Hemingway’s The sun also rises/Fiesta in Italian was a wise choice after the fiasco of For whom the bell tolls. Shakespeare’s King Lear/Rey Lear and Macbeth in Spanish were odd experiments, but good experiments nonetheless: I bought these two pieces when I was in the Canary Islands and read them in the local language. Jorge Luis Borges’ El Aleph in original Spanish was a luxury I allowed myself during a one-week long stay in Madrid. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s White nights translated in Italian remains a majestic novel, but reading it in this moment of my life I found it remarkably unremarkable. On the other hand, Pushkin’s The captain’s daughter, also translated in Italian, made me happy – and intrigued.

Of these books, I would strongly recommend two: El Aleph, which is a collection of stories that are both beautifully written and philosophically meaningful; and The captain’s daughter, because it is one of those stories that makes you wonder.

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The only book I have read in English, then, is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I did not know what this story is about – so I can tell you now: it is about the experience of a man, probably Orwell himself, who lives as a homeless in Paris and, yes, London. After reading the book I started working with homeless people myself.

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Poi, come ogni anno, ho letto una serie di fumetti realizzati da autori molto conosciuti, ironici, leggeri, eppure -come si evincerà dai titoli di cui sotto- dediti a temi piuttosto pesanti. Ecco la mia lista: Kobane Calling di Zerocalcare; La terra dei figli di Gipi; Lo scontro quotidiano di Larcenet; Il faro di Paco Roca. Sono meravigliosi e vi consiglierei di comprarli tutti.

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Parlando di fumetti, ho scoperto un piccolo volume di Giovanni Marchese: Leggere Hugo Pratt. Credo di averlo preso la prima volta alla biblioteca delle Oblate e lo ho letto tutto in una volta, mentre pranzavo da solo. M’è piaciuto così tanto che poi lo ho comprato per scribacchiarci sopra.

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Other than fictional stories, the ones listed below are the books I would recommend if you had some time to dedicate to history, law, philosophy, and economics respectively. David Gilmour’s The pursuit of Italy is a book I read upon arriving in Torino, the cradle of Italian risorgimento. It deserves to be read because it is a well-crafted history of Italian regions and how they came together. Letters to a young lawyer is a collection of commentaries by Alan Dershowitz, whom I discovered through my president’s course on reading the bible. The individual behind this book might be flawed; but the writer is genius. Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein’s The cost of rights is a simple and convincing book, but to be fair – it is very repetitive. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics is a book that has been greatly embellished over time and still makes for an entertaining read.

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Finally – two Winter reads for this wicked Winter period. Haruki Murakami’s South of the border, north of the sun/A sud del confine, a ovest del sole and Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Luce d’estate, ed è subito notte/Summer Light and Then Comes the Night. I wanted to read something warm in the cold, and these books were for me.

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Read my post on books I have read from 2015, 2014, and older.

Thirteen books from 2015

How much did I read this year? I suppose there are different ways to answer this question. I could count the number of pages; or the number of books; or the number of authors. But the thing I do is count the number of friendly faces that come to mind when recollecting the books I read over the months. Just like I did last year, I have now tried to associate each book read in 2015 to one or more persons I know. Based on this scientific method, I have estimated that in the year that is about to finish I read a lot.

These are the titles, then. Whilst I am only going to mention a couple of the people I thought of when scrolling through the list of books, many others might recognize themselves in the titles that appear beneath.

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In the first period of the year – the cold, long, tiring winter months – I read a collection of three books from Italo Calvino. The first on the list is the first novel he wrote; the third is, up to day, the book I would recommend to those who do not know him yet.

 

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In the Spring months I was really into mountain-related reads. If you are, too, then these are all exceptionally good books – the first of the three being very relaxed and similar to Thoreau’s Walden; the other two more erratic.
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I remember reading the two books above in a timid April sun of Piazza Santo Spirito. I already encouraged many friends to give a try to the first of the two. As for the second, which is a book on Tuscan cyclist Gino Bartali, I can say that today I got lost in Chianti with Giallu and we ended up breaking the tyre of the car. We were lucky enough to find Alvaro, an old mechanic who used to work for Gino Bartali: while fixing the tyre, he spoke about him as “a truly good man“. (This, in turn, made me think of an old interview with Giacinto Facchetti, another sportsman. When, as a player, he was asked what he wanted to do after retiring he replied he was going to try to be a man). If you read the book you will understand why elderly people here remind Bartali as a good man rather than as one of the greatest cyclists of all the time.

 

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In the Summer months I read two books left me from the brother who continued shape my life from afar – I shall also add a third book to this list, a collection of letters he gave me in March and I read throughout the year. I would assume these three are among his dearest books.

 

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And then. Since I was back in Florence in late September I have read only two books – but of remarkably high quality. The characters of these books have a certain depth and I realized it was really hard to get away from them after having finished their romantic, erratic, naive, contradictory life-stories.

Stuff I have been reading in 2014

Seriously? Last time I wrote about the books I read was one year ago. Since then I have bought a lot of books, I have started many of them, and I have finished only a few. I think we are still talking about a dozen or so. Would it make sense to list them all? No, it wouldn’t. So I will only cite the three books that one way or another have had the greatest impact on this little mind since it moved down to Florence.

The book number one – in strict chronological order – should be Open, by Andre Agassi. Yes, it’s a best-seller, but unlike other best-sellers it is well written and it gave me that little incentive to start playing tennis consistently. I had rarely played before, maybe ten times in my whole life if we exclude the countless hours I spent bouncing a ball against the wall of my house back when I was a kid. (That, I in restrospect, can be qualified as low-quality squash at best). So I read Open by Agassi and it made me appreciate some distinguishing qualities of tennis, namely the feeling of being completely lonely on the court, the pressure and psychological challenge with your opponent, the fear. I started playing right after finishing the book and made it a habit to go twice a week with my loyal companions – Martin, Martjin, Pierre, Fabio, and Giallu. I haven’t improved much (guess I am not up for the psychological challenge yet?), but I am enjoying every part of it.

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Then came another book about sport, endurance, psychology, and distress. Contrary to what you might think, The Damned Utd is not about Manchester United. Instead, this is a brilliant story about Brian Clough’s brief spell as manager of Leeds United football club in 1974. The book, that was suggested to me by Old Tom, is quite crisp. After reading it I watched the movie and realized that I genuinely liked the actor, Michael Sheen. I therefore started watching all his other productions, including the highly ingenious TV series Masters of Sex, and I am currently planning to watch the Blair trilogy. In the end, because of one single book I spent dozens of hours in front of my laptop. Not necessarily good, but certainly fun.

After two entertaining books it is time for something a bit more depressing. Ill Fares the Land is the last book published by Tony Judt before dying at the age of 62. Written under the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Ill Fares The Land is the political manifesto of one of the greatest contemporary historians of our time. This is a compelling read advocating a return to social democracy. I have been recommending it to virtually everybody. Unlike Postwar,  the 1000-page Judt’s masterpiece, this is a book everybody can finish in a couple of days. After finishing it I moved onto The Memory Chalet and Reappraisals, thus continuing my personal discovery of this outstanding academic who writes marvelously about things that I find deeply passionating.

 

Suicidal bunnies

Last week Dani passed me a little comic book by Andy Riley. The author sketched about fifty cartoons, each of which shows one or more white rabbits in their creative attempts to end their lives using a variety of items. There is something viciously inspiring about it.

Talking asymmetry

Right column: books I bough in the last 30 days.
Left column: books I finished in the last 30 days.

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Complete suspension of rationality

Embarking on a doctorate requires, as a colleague of mine once said, a complete suspension of rationality. Think of it: you are required to write 80–100,000 words on a single topic, spread over five years or so, allow yourself, at an age when others with similar qualifications are reaching the top of the food chain, to be subjected to an examination by a group of people whose main goal that day consists of making your life difficult, and if all goes well, you are—assuming you find a job—earning between slightly and considerably less than a taxi driver in central London. Yet every year more people start doctoral studies than the previous year, and universities have started to take their Ph.D. training considerably more seriously.

Bob Hancke ́, Intelligent Research Design – and many thanks to Tommaso who recommended me this wonderful book.

9/9, update: I just realized it was Matia who recommended me this book. He’s the kind of methodology-nerd.

Stuff I’ve been reading before moving here

It took me a while to get over the notion that I wanted to go and live in Florence and I’d only just become resigned to my lot there when the local football team radically evolved to reach what supporters consider a surely to come first stage in the Italian championship that has yet to begin. All in all, it’s been an unsettling couple of months and my appetite for books has been grossly discontinuous.

Back in February in rainy London, when sitting my interview at King’s College, I bought a few books. Most of them were political essays and I never had the guts to read them. The only purchase that really appealed me at the end was a collection of stories that accurately recall the grey atmosphere of Victorian London. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes looked life a safe harbour to protect me from the perils of deviated political minds writing about social capital and individualism. However, I did not manage to read it all. Good old Sherlock turned out to be a harder read than I expected, some fifteen years later the last time I discovered it as a child. (Furthermore, talking about Sherlock Holmes, I seem to remember that I used to like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles much better than this one book).

Arthur Conan Doyle once said that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were “a model for all time“. As to honour this connection, and in a sense of guilt for not having finished the book, I started Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only complete novel by the famous American author. I finished the book in a few days but, well, to put it simply I would not recommend it.

I would, instead, recommend another book I read when in Brussels, between March and July. Stoner was a present from my father. It is difficult to find anything special about this plain psychological investigation of the university career of an imaginary character who engages a consuming struggle against the apathy that surrounds him. This is a hell of a sad book; yet, I it is also a powerful story that made me – more- willing not to compromise, to pursue my passions, and to be coherent.

Talking about coherence, I did not finish two other books I got as presents from Stefania and Iris. I intentionally left Charles Schulz’s Ce la possiamo fare, Charlie Brown! unfinished, as I enjoyed to progress little by little, reading a couple of strips every day. I still have to finish it. Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates was a bestseller in Belgium. Iris brought it to me as a present when she came to visit. Ironically, the book is about alcoholism and wild parties, something that was completely alien to our habits when Iris and I spent time together in Canada. The whole concept of the book is hilarious but – as for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there isn’t any story behind it, just a series of short novels which, at the end, all look alike. For this reason I never managed to finish the book. I did, however, adored the one chapter entitled The Tour de France, in which an extraordinary drinking competition is created by one of the characters. In line with the famous bike race. 19 stages with 5km equal to a standard glass of alcohol, meaning that “even a reasonably short stage of 180 kilometres would involve drinking 36 standard glasses of alcohol. Against the clock“. There are even three jerseys to earn: “the yellow jersey was for the leader and eventual winner…the greenn jersey for the explosive sprinter: the neck-it king. And the polka-dot jersey could be captured in the mountains, where you proceeded by guzzling strong drinks like whisky and vodka“. This brilliant idea will soon be translated into practice, as soon as I will find the athletes ready to accept the challenge (Alvise, TLA, Joe, Andrew, Fabio, Mindo, Stefano, James…?).

Perhaps because of a sense of childish curiosity, just before leaving Belgium I felt the urge to read Herge’s Les Aventures de TinTin: L’Ile Noire. I suppose I cannot really consider this comic novel as a book. I did, however, manage to finish it in only one day – quite surprisingly, as it was in French, a language I am still far from mastering.

Back in Italy I read Richard Ford’s short novel The Womanizer. This is a light, yet insightful, read about men and infidelity. During my relatively short trip to Slovakia I decided to dig deep into Czech culture. I read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Other Stories and there isn’t much to say about it: I did not understand much of it, I did not like it, and I gave up. Diluded and in need of something to read during a 7-hour ride on the train, I found an English library in Bratislava and I bought Milan Kundera’s Slowness. I adored it and I read it all the night before taking the train in the hostel. So on the train I had nothing to do. To avoid the same mistake, on my way back I bought Kundera’s Immortality, which is much longer than the former. I finished it one week later, when travelling with Stefania. In this period I eagerly consumed four books in a row. It must be said that on our way we stopped in many libraries and bought an enormous amount of books. I managed to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a collection of Celtic Tales and a biography of John Fitzgerald Kennedy; and none of these is particularly worth a comment. I only started, and not finished, Henry Thoreau’s Walden: Life in the Woods and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: the West and the Rest. Thus far I will limit myself to saying that these two books have one thing in common: they both come with an heavy subtitle.

The illusion of being elect

Alessandro and Serena are getting married today. I will think of them while re-reading a few lines from Milan Kundera’s Slowness.

The feeling of being elect is present, for instance, in every love relation. For love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you’re intelligent, because you’re decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don’t chase women, because you do the dishes, then I’m disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egotist, a bastard.

update: Sunday, September 1st. Inside thing for those who were there.cravatta color 'verdebarach'

Babilonia

Parlò il vecchio.
« Io sono stato a Babilonia » disse.

« A Babilonia ? »
« A Babilonia » disse il vecchio. « A Babilonia. »
« Questa » il lungo osservò « era una città antica. »
« E non sono io abbastanza antico ? » disse il vecchio. « Vi fui » soggiunse « in gioventù. »
« Ma » il lungo disse « ora è perduta. »
« Tutto è perduto » rispose il vecchio.
« E’ sotto le sabbie » disse il lungo. « Morta da secoli. »
Il vecchio sospirò. « Oh sì ! » rispose. « Ed era bella ! Quanti lumi » disse « aveva ! »
Non parlammo più.

Elio Vittorini, Le città del mondo, 1941

Jorge Luis Borges: etimologie per una notte da incubo

Anna Piccoli, articolo scritto per l’Universo

Sette è il numero delle conferenze tenute da Borges a Buenos Aires nel 1977, successivamente trascritte nell’opera Siete noches. Ogni «notte» l’autore tratta un diverso argomento, vasto e complesso, partendo da esperienze personali che rendono ciascun soggetto più vicino al pubblico. A unire i vari temi e legare il lettore/ascoltatore un filo di Arianna, che va seguito per trovare l’uscita dal labirinto di etimologie, musicalità di versi poetici, traduzioni in lingue straniere, riferimenti ad altri testi, ad altre epoche, persone, realtà. Mano a mano che passa il tempo e scorrono le righe, il lettore/ascoltatore avanza nella sala conferenze, fino a prendere posto e trovarselo di fronte: Borges gli parla direttamente, racconta, insegna, dialoga con lui. Le sue parole trasportano in un viaggio di sogno tra la poesia, il buddismo, la cabala e la cecità. Ed ecco che, la seconda «notte», quel viaggio di sogno si muta in incubo. Non in un brutto sogno, no: in un incubo affascinante, quello etimologicamente spiegato dall’intellettuale argentino, che attraversa tempo, spazio e autori illustri con una rapidità propria solo dell’immaginazione.

Di colpo ci si trova a Roma: qui Incubus è il nome della divinità che ispira sogni angosciosi. Si tratta di un demone che, calata l’oscurità, si pone sopra l’inconsapevole dormiente, opprimendolo. Tale è, infatti, l’etimo: in-cubo, “giaccio sopra”. Lo stesso vale in Grecia, dove ephialtes, “incubo” appunto, deriva da ephallomai, ossia “salto sopra”. La vittima? Ancora una volta il dormiente, schiacciato da un peso che gli provoca visioni negative. È un’idea, questa, che attraversa secoli e culture. Una traccia rimane nel tedesco Alp (“incubo”, ma anche “elfo”), Alptraum e Alpdruck (letteralmente “sogno dell’elfo” e “pressione dell’elfo”); un’altra nella lingua spagnola, dove pesadilla, termine che dipende da pesar, indica qualcosa che esercita una pressione su di noi; ma non bisogna preoccuparsi: pesadilla è un diminutivo, è qualcosa di piccolo, che dura poco.

Effettivamente, mangiare qualcosa di poco digeribile, qualcosa che resta sullo stomaco, provoca facilmente brutti sogni, proprio come fa Incubus ben accomodato sul ventre di chi si è abbandonato al sonno.
Tale è la rappresentazione che dà Füssli nel suo celebre olio: una giovane donna distesa, il capo reclinato sul bordo del letto, il braccio abbandonato e una strana creatura, orrida, accovacciata sul suo grembo. Nel dipinto appare anche un’altra figura inquietante, un cavallo dagli occhi vitrei, la cui testa, spettrale, spunta dall’ombra della cortina. Che sia forse un rimando alla «yegua de la noche» (Borges), la giumenta che, secondo le leggende, di notte portava in groppa il demone malefico? Ne resta un ricordo nel francese cauchemar (e, guarda caso, cauchier, in piccardo, significa, ancora una volta, “premere”), nel tedesco Nachtmar e nell’inglese nightmare, dove mare o meare sarebbe proprio “cavalla”. Così la intendono Shakespeare in alcuni suoi versi e Hugo parlando del «cheval noir de la nuit». L’etimologia è però incerta e mare potrebbe avere il valore di fantasma, come nella mitologia nordica, o quello di morte, se si considera il lessema latente indoeuropeo mer.

Che sia il fastidioso peso di un elfo demonico, l’angoscia provocata da un fantasma evanescente o l’atterrimento dovuto a un’oscurità pesta dal sentore di morte, l’incubo è ovunque malessere fisico o orrore apportato da un elemento soprannaturale che, turbando, disturba il sonno. Forse, afferma Borges, durante gli incubi siamo davvero all’inferno. Eppure, sia nell’incoscienza del sonno che nella consapevolezza del risveglio, l’incubo, come il sogno, lascia un’impressione forte: è vivida affabulazione e intricata interpretazione. Perciò, conclude Borges, lo si può considerare la più antica e diffusa di tutte le attività estetiche.