Books I have recently finished: The Pathfinders; The Art of War; and my own book “Journey to Me”

As an amateur astronomer with an overall interest in science, I have long been aware of the influence of science from west to east and east to west. In fact, this exchange has actually been going on for millenna, even with the difficulties of travel in the ancient world.

Prof. Jim Al-Khalili has covered this wonderfully in his book “The Pathfinders”, highlighting the scientific achievements during the “golden age” of Islam, and that there were scientific exchanges between Islamic and Christian communities and some exchanges from as far away as India in the centuries surrounding the year 1000. And, like Leonardo da Vinci in the west, the Islamic world had its share of polymaths, such as Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina, who known in the west as Avicenna. But the Islamic world was not monothestic, as many Jews and Christians, such as the Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon and the Christian Job of Edssa also made their contributions; indeed, there were even a couple of atheists.

Prof. Al-Khalili goes into some of the reasons for the golden age’s decline, and they are not all religious, as one might assume, but he also notes the signs of resurgence, as evidenced by the numerous libraries and scientific institutions that have recently been built in cities like Damascus.

A wonderful historical account of a really interesting time in history.

My second book might seem strange, as I am a life-long pacifist, but its a book about the ancient writings of Sun Tzu, who was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher who lived from 545 B.C. to 496 B.C., and is entitled “The Art of War”. Reading it comes from both my curiosity and my philosophy of “better a devil you know than a devil you don’t know”.

The edition of the book I got came across as a “how to” book of war, a line item listing of what seemed, to me even as a pacifist, actual sage advice on what to do and what not to do to fight a war. The book apparently has an international reputation, and generals from countries who have actually seen combat claim the Art of War as their “Bible”.

As much as I am against war, I found the reading of it strangely compelling, and I am actually kind of glad I read it. The book did not, to me, glorify war in any way, but was simply very practical advice on how best to fight one. It was, indeed, a very strategic book.

And the last book I want to mention is my own, recently self-published on Kobo, entitled “Journey to Me”.

I had a nervous breakdown when I was nineteen, and went through years of therapy to try to bring a very traumatic and confusing childhood and teen years into perspective.

There’s a saying that “when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it tough to remember you were sent to drain the swamp”. I finally managed to mostly drain my swamp and get a perspective on my life. I say mostly because life is always an ongoing experience.

I wrote the book to try and help people who are going through their own very tough times to get the courage to face themselves and understand. Only by facing your issues can you deal with them. Because, one of the truths of life is, you can’t run away.

When books lead to other books

Some years ago I purchased a book entitled “Paris After the Liberation” by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper(Folio Society). It was about Paris just after WWII, and spoke about the tough times and deprivation the city endured, but also touched on a vibrant nightlife, the clubs, the theatre, and the many personalities. Highlighted in the book’s pages, with accompanying photos, were Charles de Gaulle, future president of France, and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Another person mentioned was Duff Cooper, a British conservative politician who was eventually named British ambassador to France after the liberation in 1944. He is mentioned here because he authored a well received book about Talleyrand, (Folio Society) whose actual name was Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand’s claim to fame was that he was an accomplished, brilliant diplomat who served under the leadership of Napoleon, and a rogue with his share of illegitimate children. I decided to get a copy of this biography, which was both interesting and seemed well researched, and included several paintings of Napoleon in which Talleyrand is depicted.

The other example I can give is a book, by Einstein, entitled “Relativity”. As an amateur astronomer over many years, books about astronomy and related topics, like physics, have equally interested me. The book was difficult to read in spots, as mathematics was never my strong point. But it did encourage me to buy some “Dummies” books on algebra and even calculus to try and understand his work better.

Part of the book dealt with the topic of quantum physics, the sub-atomic world of particle physics. There a joke that goes: Never trust an atom; they make up everything. And so what is this microcosm which makes up everything?

I been further helped by books on quantum physics written by Jim Al-Khalili, who is a professor of physics at the University of Surrey in England. Prof. Al-Khalili has a very “down to earth” style of writing that makes even a very challenging topic like quantum physics easier to grasp.

I don’t claim to be an Einstein or even Jim Al-Khalili, but, every “book-adventure” adds to knowledge and experience.

Three Authors(novelists) I have Enjoyed

The first book is called “I, Claudius”, an historical novel by Robert Graves and published in 1934.

Claudius was a real person, and was Emperor of the Roman Empire, at least according to Edward Gibbons’ the “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”,he came to the throne after Caligula and ruled for some thirteen years.

In Graves’ fictional account, well, I’ll quote directly from the back of the book: “Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the Imperial Roman dynasties.(Game of Thrones, Roman style?)

Graves doesn’t hold back in describing the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome and I found the novel very real and compelling. Actually, Graves further wrote “Claudius the God” which I must soon get. Better late than never.

My next author is Canadian Margaret Lawrence( not to be confused with Margaret Atwood, recently famous for her novel, the Handmaid’s Tale) I’ve read two of her novels, The Stone Angel, published in 1964 and which tells about the up and downs of the life of character Hagar Shipley, and “The Diviners” which is the story of another lady Morag Gunn, a novelist and single mother.

I like Lawrence’s novels because they are “gritty” and reflect her own experiences in life, I think more sadness than happiness. Her novels have received many awards in Canada.

My third novelist is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denis0vich” which is about a day in a Russian Labour Camp under the Stalinist purges, and became famous just for that reason. Even more famous is his book, the Gulag Archipelago, which is his recounting of the Stalinist purges, very popular during the Cold War.

I had the Gulag Archipelago as a three volume set, and I managed to read book one before they disappeared.

I books I’ve lost over the years…….

George Bernard Shaw (by G.K. Chesterton), and Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve mentioned about an interest in the plays of George Bernard Shaw. In the ebook download I bought which contains all of his works, and I have enjoyed some of it already, there is a “forward” by G.K. Chesterton, concerning aspects of Shaw’s character.

I should say forwards, because Chesterton wrote lengthy essays on Shaw’s character. Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1856, and so its proper that Chesterton begins his analysis( maybe too clinical a word) with an essay entitled “The Irishman”, and then writes five other essays, entitled “The Puritan”, “The Progressive”, “The Critic”, “The Dramatist”, and “The Philosopher”. Almost books by themselves, and definitely a worthy read all by themselves; better yet, together.

I was so impressed with Chesterton’s (better word “profile”) or profiles, that I also immediately downloaded Chesterton’s work to see if perhaps Shaw had returned the favour and had written essays on Chesterton. But, at least in the work I downloaded, no such luck.

Shaw was a terribly complicated individual according to Chesterton, probably eccentric to some degree although I don’t remember Chesterton using the adjective, and that probably accounts for his success as a playwright, although, also according to Chesterton, Shaw did suffer for years before reaching success.

Many years ago, for our first anniversary, my wife bought me a book collection, if I remember, correctly called “Classic Collection”. There were twelve or fourteen books in the collection, some of the books fiction like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Moby Dick”.

But also writers like American Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, and one or two other whose names I can’t remember(I point out American because I am Canadian). Emerson, born in the early 1800s, was also a very well rounded person, a minister, poet, philosopher, and many of his essays, like the one on self-reliance, impressed me.

I haven’t started reading him yet, but I do look forward to becoming re-acquainted with him and his writings. He gave me some interesting insights when I first read him and I hope to gain even more when I reread him.

Unfortunately, I no longer have the collection because, in need of some quick cash, I sold it to a friend. It was painful; I usually don’t do that with books.

More on Poetry

I said that my first exposure to poetry was Alexander Pushkin, but then I happened to look in my bookcase and realized I was wrong.

Back in 2008, on a trip to Australia to visit my brother and sister-in-law, I was, admittedly, somewhat surprised to find in the airport bookstore, Homer’s Illiad, Homer’s story of the Trojan wars, told in what is known in poetry as dactylic hexameter. While I have heard that terminology used before, I admit I am no expert on poetry.

I was surprised to find the book at an airport bookstore because, for me, the book had a reputation as very “scholarly”, very academic, intense reading. And it was that. It needed a “prerequiste” of a knowledge of history and the Trojan wars on which it was based to understand what you were reading.

But, thanks to the reminder about Homer, and now with Pushkin, I have come to have an appreciation for poetry.

I was only about halfway through the Illiad when the vacation in Australia ended, so it took me a full year to finish the Illiad, and then I immediately went out and purchased the second half, the Odessy.

But those are the books that I have read that are poetic in nature, although I am also into the plays of George Bernard Shaw, also a first experience, and turning into its own interesting experience.

I love books

I have always loved books.

When I was in elementary school, they gave us a “reader” book, filled with simple stories to help us to learn to read; my mother told me I taught myself to read. And when I was finished with my reader, I decided to read my science book, which started my life-long interest in science, especially astronomy.

            By the time I was a young teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen, I had a respectable library. I became the family “nerd”. Initially I was insulted at the insinuation – not any more.

           My books are generally geared toward my interests, which are many, and lately have been enlarging on my interests. I was never big on poetry, until I came across a book of poetry by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, “Eugene Onegin”; I was impressed, and recently purchased an ebook compilation of his writings. I have reread “A Brief History of Time” by the late Stephen Hawking, as a book. And an ebook of humour by Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock.

           I have, in fact, three libraries now, one actual and two ebook. However, my collection is dwarfed by an experience I had in university. I took a course in journalism, to hone my own writing skills. The professor was kind enough to invite us to his home for a brunch on a Saturday. I arrived, and was absolutely astonished to see, with everyone else, that literally not one foot (or meter) of his basement didn’t have a bookshelf with books. There must have been at least a thousand books, conservatively.

            We were astonished, and concerned. What if he had to move, or tragically, what if there was a fire – plenty of fuel.

            So there’s lots to be said for the ebook revolution! But if I come across an actual book I like, I won’t hesitate to buy it.

Twenty-five Character Traits of Eccentrics

I have always been eccentric, but I have only come to understand myself as an eccentric through the research of David Weeks, Ph.D, a psychologist working in Scotland, who has done, as far as I know, the world’s first actual research into eccentricity. He started his research in the mid-eighties, and has recently published a book entitled “The Gifts of Eccentrics”, a fascinating read.

In the last chapter of the book, he effectively summarizes his research into his Twenty-five Character Traits of Eccentrics. This list, and a lot of meditation, has helped me to understand who I am.

I hope it may help eccentrics out there understand themselves, if they need it.

  • Enduring non-conformity;
  • Creative;
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behaviour;
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others;
  • Idealism, wanting to make the world a better place and the people in it happier;
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six);
  • Intelligent, in the upper fifteen per cent of the population on tests of intelligence; many notable eccentrics proved singularly bright.
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them;
  • Non-competitive;
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society;
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements;
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view;
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humour, charm, whimsy and wit;
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child;
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defence mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualisation.
  • Slightly abrasive;
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle;
  • Feelings of “invisibility”, which means that they believed other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously;
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses;
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this was well-founded.
  • Disliked small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation;
  • A degree of social awkwardness;
  • More likely to be single, separated or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced;
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning.

(The first five of these characteristics are the most important and apply to virtually every eccentric. Nonconformity is the principal defining trait)