My year in reading: 2014
I finished fewer books this year. There are many reasons: health, travel, work, house. The main reason was a shift in focus from moderate sized works that I could finish reading in a few days or weeks to massive sprawling complex works. They were definitely worth the time and effort, but they require a substantial amount of it. It might be said that the highlight of this years reading was not the books I read but the books I didn’t (completely) read.
The really amazing books I did not finish:
Walter Benjamin-The Arcades Project
This year I was able to do extensive reading in the five volumes of the Harvard Press Selected Works have finally arrived at a good and consistent understanding of the enigmatic Benjamin. This was good preparation for digging through the Arcades. While not reading the entire collection cover to cover I was able to get good sense of the overall structure of the work as well as its general purpose and direction. It is still a very fragmentary experience but that is fitting. It is reminsicnet of One-Way Street’s “Construction Site” which appears to be the way Benjamin used it as well.
Antonio Gramsci-Prison Notebooks
I had first read the Hoare & Smith Selections from the Prison Notebooks when I was in college but had very little sense of the material they were working from. With Buttigieg’s translation of the first three volumes of the original notebooks I was finally able to get a good sense of what they had been working with. The notebooks are far more fragmentary than I imagined and this explains the rather strange and disjunctive arguments in the Selections. Reading this just after Benjamin’s Arcades provided an amazing picture of how difficult it was to be a socialist writer trying to survive fascist Europe.
Thomas Picketty-Capital in the 21st Century
I would like to have read this one cover to cover but it was a timely and I just did not have the time for a deep dive. Still was able to get a good impression by looking at the methodology, several examples and his conclusions and recommendations. I think the key takaway is that we now have the ability to collect and analyze this kind of data better than ever before which means that economics should move from a rationalist theory-based approach to a more empirical evidence-based approach. He also makes the point that wealth distribution should not be a dirty word as that is what banks are doing all the time, just not in a way that is transparent or democratic.
Richard Wagner-Works 8 vols.
I read across all eight volumes but did not complete any single one. This reading provided a firm understanding of the theoretical and philosophical basis for Wagner’s music dramas and the development he went through to get there. Finally I feel I have a firmly grounded understanding of Wagner’s intended meaning for Parsifal and The Ring—which are entirely consistent (and not how Bernard Shaw describes them in his otherwise excellent The Perfect Wagnerite). This reading also gave me a chance to further explore Wagner’s relationship with Nietzsche and how that effected Neitzsche’s development. (And Wagner’s supposedly problematic association with the National Socialists).
Isaac Newton-Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica
I ran across this almost by accident. I always knew this is an important book in the history of science but I never had any intention of reading it. I had been reading some Medieval logicians and Francis Bacon’s New Organon. At the same time was researching Leibniz and the Rationalist philosophers. Newton seemed central to this universe and I casually picked up Prinicipia to take a look. His formulations are unusual compared to contemporary practice but the thought process was incredibly detailed and rigorous. But also solidly based in empiricism. The book is not easy going but really was an eye-opener. In fact it seems central to the development of philosophy in that era and I wonder why it is rarely (or never) treated as an important philosophical text.