Lorenzo & his humble friends

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

Category: books

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.

everything but tennis players

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 realised 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 marvellously about things that I find 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.

IMG_0387

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.

Culture can save your life

A very good idea from Alain de Botton is called bibliotherapy: you can go and meet someone and talk to them about your life, and on the basis of the challenges that you are facing in a whole range of areas. The bibliotherapist will do you a reading prescription to match people to books that are important to them at that moment in their life.

Because in the modern world we don’t dare to imagine that culture has a purpose connected to changing and saving your life. We rather imagine that culture’s a really nice thing to visit on a Sunday; you go to the museum or you pick up a book. The idea that culture is literally a resource by which to live is oddly neglected.

Time for books / 6

Between January and late February I have read several books of all the kinds.

The first book I read in early January was Arto Paasilinna’s The Forest of the Hanged Foxes. The main characters of the story run away from the city to live in a small cabin in the wood, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This is a typically Christmas read, soft and a bit surreal. I loved the idea of living alone in the  intensity the landscapes of Northern Finland. It is rare to find a novel that makes you laugh and at the same time reflect about human condition. This is a really good one.

It took a while to read Heinrich Harrer’s Beyond Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During, and After (in Italian: La mia sfida al destino). The book is about five-hundred pages long about Harrer’s life as a mountaineer who spent seven years in Tibet and who climbed an awful lot of peaks. Harrer died only a few years ago, when he was about to turn 100. This is a good book, perhaps a bit too long. From his autobiography, Harrer stands out as a very controversial character, definitely selfish, probably committed, surely extremely resilient. I really liked the first chapters, then it turned a bit boring and repetitive.

Sempre sull’alpinismo, ho letto anche Giorni di Ghiaccio di Marco Confortola. Ho già commentato questa lettura qui. Ho letto anche due libri di osservatori politici trentini e riferimenti di vita che ho avuto l’onore di conoscere personalmente. Ho commentato il libro di Piergiorgio Cattani su Dellai, un uomo solo al comando qui; e quello di Walter Micheli, Passioni e sentieri, qui.

In una serata oziosa, tanto per cambiare genere ho letto Ciclismo, Storie segrete, di Beppe Conti. Libretto leggero e simpatico, che si legge in circa due ore e che parla dei retroscena e dei piccoli trucchetti legati alle grandi imprese del ciclismo passato. Altra lettura molto leggera e veloce: Lorenzo Baratter, L’autonomia spiegata ai miei figli. Un compendio veloce sulle origini e le ragioni dell’autonomia trentina, in un momento in cui dobbiamo ripensarne radicalmente i contenuti che ne giustificano l’esistenza.

Finally, while travelling to Munich I read Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. I would call this an interesting book. It was a huge success a few years ago. Alain de Botton is a very famous university professor now, one of those who can speak not only to an academic, but also to a much broader public. The book is about six philosophers whose thought could have a powerful effect on our lives. Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are here interpreted for the light their work can shine on certain great universal problems.