Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book #3: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

“If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino is a very strange book, and unlike most things I’ve ever read. It is also, for reasons that will become clear shortly, an entirely mixed bag.

“If on a winter’s night” starts off in second person, and explains to you, the reader, the actions you are taking in preparation for reading the book. This second person narrative continues on every odd chapter, and is interspersed with opening chapters of a number of fictitious works (All even chapters). Throughout the book, Calvino describes various reasons why the reader (you) are interrupted from reading the current work. After chapter two (the first story) the reader is interrupted because the book is misprinted, and instead of the whole book, the first chapter is said to be repeated ad infinitum. Upon obtaining a ‘fixed’ copy during chapter three, he (you, the reader) finds that it is another book entirely.

Throughout the book, the methods which Calvino introduces as excuses to cut a story short seem increasingly contrived, but yet somehow work very well within the context of the story. I really appreciate the meta-style that this book has, as it makes a number of commentaries on the practice of reading and writing. The shame, I feel, is that the book (having been written in 1979) is somewhat dated. I would be interested to see how the inclusion of things like the internet would have affected Calvino’s story (if at all).

The expositions (as they are by no means complete stories) which the reader reads vary widely. I found that they were more good than bad, and in general, left me wanting more of most of the stories (obviously Calvino’s intention). Also nice is that if one particular ‘story’ starts to drag, it won’t be long before it is over, and you can continue on.

All in all I really enjoyed this book, and would never have found it if it weren’t for a very good friend of mine. I would easily suggest this book to anyone looking for something less than linear. However if a concrete, linear structure is that important to you, then this book might be hard to swallow.

P.S.: I am behind on my reviews, and have already finished my next book (The Great Gatsby). Look for my review of that after the holiday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book #2: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

I hope that no one reading this (Very few people, in all likelihood) are expecting in depth analysis in this review, because I have to be honest: I just didn’t get it. It was almost certainly due to the fact that I know very little about eastern philosophy, or perhaps because I wasn’t reading critically enough. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t really divine any meaning out of this book.

Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse is set in India, and follows the titular character has he seeks enlightenment. The novel is set six centuries before the birth of Christ, which is the same time that the Buddha was alive. This is no coincidence, of course, as the life of Siddhartha is supposed to mirror the life of Buddha.

The plot follows Siddhartha through his many attempts at enlightenment, which vary widely between ideals such as asceticism and materialism. Ultimately, one of the core tenants of Buddhism (as I understand it) is revealed, in that Siddhartha finds what he is looking for when he stops looking.

Another strong idea in the novel is the idea that the path to enlightenment must come from within. Though Siddhartha crosses paths with Buddha, Siddhartha decides that he must carve his own path to enlightenment.

All in all, though I did not get as much out of this book as some would, I greatly enjoyed it. It illustrated much of the spiritual frustration I have had in life (having been raised Catholic) and presented interesting, relatable characters. In the end it was a quick read, and I was glad to have been able to read it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #1 - "The Sea Wolf" by Jack London

So this being my inaugural review for Cannonball Read, I thought I would do something special. While I know it is weird to break with a format without establishing a format to begin with, you’re just going to have to deal with it. Because really, who’s the one writing this?

Anyway, to begin, I will edify you with the context of this reading. After recently graduating school from University of Wisconsin, I finally landed a job in the Chicago-land area, and was forced to move away from Madison, and all the friends I have there. One of my good friends, with whom I often discuss things like philosophy, the meaning of life and women, gave me a copy of The Sea Wolf by Jack London. I will start by relating to you the inscription on the inside cover.


This is the closest I have known Jack London to get to philosophy, and even with that in mind, it is not very close. He misunderstands Nietzsche as being akin to Spencer – a common mistake but a huge one. It leads Jack to believe that the ubermensch is literally meant by Nietzsche to be his goal. We can talk on some other day if you fancy as to why this is inappropriate of Nietzsche, but it does mean that Jack London could be reasonably taken to be looking at Rand [Note to the reader: I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand, and this is often the subject of conversations between me and the writer of this inscription]

And that’s why I am giving this to you. Objectivism and the rugged individualism which is appears as the formulated variation of are powerful, romantic notions. They appeal to our instincts and our imaginations because they arouse deeply seated sentiments fundamental to the human state. But the danger in all ideas is that they can be believed, and once believed, they never, ever behave as they seem as though they would when they only were being entertained.

Americans are not always aware that George Orwell was a committed socialist; so much so that he fought in the international brigade in the Spanish Civil War. But the hero of 1984 and Animal Farm recognized that when ideas become ideology-when they are implemented-things go awry.

Here J.London is not unattracted to the ubermensch philosophy-he is, in many ways, intrigued by Wolf Larsen, our Randian Hero. But Jack perceives the danger of giving such a romantic ideal birth into flesh. London associates him with the Norse gods of Asgard-and as long as he lived he was a bomb threatening all life around him, to bring us back to Nietzsche, by way of paraphrase. But London recognized that, just as with the Norse gods, mortals could not truly live until the gods, and their epic threats passed away.

This was far too long to come back around to my point, but I am finally there – in your life, I would suggest to you and all people to not trust ideas. Live with them, observe them, but never trust them. They are too much like women.

Good luck on your future endeavors


This book spoke to me on a number of levels. Not only was it a vivid coming of age tale which appealed to my sense of individualism, but it also to untold adventures that life holds.

For those unaware, the Sea Wolf follows the journey of Humphrey Van Weyden as he falls overboard in a ferry crash and is picked up by a sealing ship. Aboard he meets the story’s antagonist, Wolf Larsen, who is determined to break him of his aristocratic ways and make him a real man. Around halfway through the story, a woman is introduced, and seeing the danger that Wolf poses to her, steals her away during the night. Eventually they shipwreck themselves on an islet they dub “Endeavor Island.” Without the menacing presence of Wolf, he is finally able to stand on his own two legs.

Though I suspect my enjoyment of this book was heightened by the context in which I read it, I would highly recommend this to anyone. It carries with it a sense of adventure that is reminiscent of Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Though I suppose I should give credit where credit is due, as Krakauer is a modern author and was obviously heavily influenced by Jack London.


Going back to the main point of why I was given this book – to provide a foil for the value I place on rugged individualism. London paints a dangerous picture in Wolf Larsen, a picture of individualism and greed (Randian values to which I adhere somewhat) gone awry. The character of Larsen is ultimately made to suffer for his actions, as he dies alone, helpless and abandoned on his broken ship. No doubt this is a book which I will point to in years to come as one which continually shapes my values, and as a lens through which I look at the world.