Tag Archives: history

Thoughts on “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt” by Ken Krimstein

So a while back, I said that I was going to be changing the format of the blog and just posting quotes instead of sharing my thoughts. Well, as you have likely surmised, I have gone back to my original format. There were a couple reasons why I went full circle:

  • I discovered that posting quotes regularly did not really take that much less time; in fact, I think I spent even more time, since I felt compelled to post more often.
  • My daughter was all excited because she Googled something by Umberto Eco and one of my blog posts was the top Google search result.

Anyway, I figure I will write when I can, and not sweat it if I get too busy to write. That said, my thoughts on this book.

I came across this at a community center where there was a table of free books (a dangerous thing for a bibliophile). Most of the books were of no interest to me, but this one immediately caught my attention. While in college, I had read Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece of political theory, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The book was one of those that left a strong and lasting impact on me. I cannot tell you how many times I have observed the behaviors of political leaders and listened to their words, then thought back to Arendt’s book. Essentially, she wrote the book on totalitarianism. The term did not exist until she coined it.

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt is a biographical graphic novel. It provides a witty overview of Arendt’s life, how she fled Europe during World War II, established herself as a political theorist and philosopher, and eventually went on to become the first woman to be appointed full professor at Princeton University.

While most of the book tells the story of Ms. Arendt’s life, it does briefly summarize some of her political ideas.

As fire lives on oxygen, the oxygen of totalitarianism is untruth. Before totalitarian leaders can fit reality to their lies, their message is an unreeling contempt for facts. They live by the belief that fact depends entirely on the power of the man who makes it up.

(p. 167)

The graphic novel quotes Arendt as saying, “Whatever I do, I am simply unable to avert my eyes from the reality of the world around me.” (p. 126) I feel the same way. It is impossible to ignore what I see going on in the world. And if you ever read The Origins of Totalitarianism, you will also not be able to look at the behaviors of political leaders the same way again.

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share in my musings. I hope you find these posts interesting. If so, please let me know. As long as there is interest, I will do my best to keep writing.

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Thoughts on “Along the Road” by Aldous Huxley

As I continue working through the books that have been on my shelf way too long, I decided to read this one, which has been on my shelf for at about 25 years.

This book is a collection of travel essays which Huxley published in 1925. From an historical perspective, it is interesting to read about what things were like in Europe in the years between World War I and World War II. Also, travelling in a time before cell phones and GPS provided fodder for interesting stories.

Early in the book, Huxley asserts that most people do not like to travel and only do travel so that they can essentially have the bragging rights of having been somewhere cool.

The fact is that very few travellers really like travelling. If they go to the trouble and expense of travelling, it is not so much from curiosity, for fun or because they like to see things beautiful and strange, as out of a kind of snobbery. People travel for the same reason they collect works of art: because the best people do it. To have been to certain spots on the earth’s surface is socially correct; and having been there, one is superior to those who have not. Moreover, travelling gives one something to talk about when one gets home.

(pp. 9 – 10)

I confess chuckling when I read this. I considered times travelling with friends when I was younger. I was eager to go out, see and do things, and often my travel companions wanted to hang around the hotel room. I never understood this. For me, the whole point of travelling is to experience something new and to broaden my perspectives.

As an avid reader, I am guilty of always bringing books with me when I travel. As Huxley points out, I am not alone in this regard.

All tourists cherish an illusion, of which no amount of experience can ever completely cure them; they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading. They see themselves, at the end of a day’s sightseeing or motoring, or while they are sitting in the train, studiously turning over the pages of all the vast and serious works which, at ordinary seasons, they never find time to read.

(p. 70)

I am reminded of my travels in the Lake District of England, carrying around my volumes of works by the English Romantic writers. I did read some, but mostly it was one or two poems in the evening before falling into sleep from exhaustion. I now choose my books strategically, something that is not too heavy, and which will likely get me through most if not all of the journey. The truth is, most places have interesting local bookstores, and it is really hard for me to visit a place like Paris and not schedule a trip to the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore. I can always buy another book if needed. And for those of use who have eReaders, there is always a veritable library at the fingertips.

Overall, I liked this book. Huxley provides some great descriptions of various places he visited, as well as some in-depth analyses of artwork and architecture native to the locations. Granted, much of what is included in these essays is outdated, but I still found the book interesting.

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Thoughts on “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman

After the list of Academy Award nominees came out, I made it a point to watch as many of the Best Picture nominees as possible, which included “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Since I really liked this film, I decided I ought to read Abbie Hoffman’s most famous book, which I purchased instead of stole.

The book is essentially a handbook for the hippie revolutionary. Although much of the material is dated (I completely skipped the last section which was just a list of resources in various cities which are all likely defunct), there were still some entertaining tidbits, and it does give insight into the thinking of one of the 60’s most prominent activists.

Steal This Book is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika. It preaches jailbreak. It shows you where and exactly how to place the dynamite that will destroy the walls.

(p. XXI)

As I said, most of what is in this book is dated and is only of interest from a socio-historical perspective. For example, Hoffman’s information regarding Guerrilla TV, which is made moot by social media, where anyone can create a YouTube channel and broadcast their political views to the masses.

Guerrilla TV is the vanguard of the communications revolution, rather than the avant-garde cellophane light shows and the weekend conferences. One pirate picture on the sets in Amerika’s living rooms is worth a thousand wasted words.

(p. 144)

In light of all the demonstrations we have witnessed over the last couple years, Abbie does offer some sound advice to those who choose non-violent demonstrations as a means of social change.

Numbers of people are only one of the many factors in an effective demonstration. The timing, choice of target and tactics to be employed are equally important. There have been demonstrations of 400,000 that are hardly remembered and demonstrations of a few dozen that were remarkably effective. Often the critical element involved is the theater. Those who say a demonstration should be concerned with education rather than theater don’t understand either and will never organize a successful demonstration, or for that matter, a successful revolution.

(p. 147)

I will conclude by saying this book is definitely not for most people. Not only is it an anachronism, but Hoffman appears to advocate for violent behavior in parts of this book, going so far as to provide instructions for activities that I personally find abhorrent and have no place in a civilized society. But I will grant that Hoffman was writing at a time when individuals fighting for social change were subject to severe reprisal, as is evident in the film “Trial of the Chicago 7.” My recommendation, watch the movie and skip the book. Feels weird saying that.

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“Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Electrified Tesla – Issue 01” by Cynthia von Buhler

I picked up this comic the other day on a whim. I was in a new comic store and saw this on the shelf. It looked interesting, so I bought it. Wow! I was really impressed.

First, I need to point out that Ms. von Buhler is both the writer and artist for this graphic tale, and her work is outstanding on both fronts. The writing and the artwork both excel in quality. This is a fictional detective style story based on historical facts about Nikola Tesla and the mystery surrounding his life and death. In addition to creating an engaging mystery tale, Von Buhler also uses her character, Minky Woodcock, to explore issues of gender bias. The result is a definite work of art.

At the end of this installment is a section entitled “Fact versus Fiction,” where von Buhler cites the historical facts that she weaves into the tale. She also shares some interesting tidbits about her research, which I personally found fascinating.

Tesla lived in the New Yorker Hotel in 1943. Every day he would walk to nearby Bryant Park to feed the pigeons. He took a fancy to an injured white pigeon after nursing her back to health. As part of my research, I stayed overnight in Tesla’s two small rooms on the hotel’s 33rd floor where his beloved pigeon would enter his room every day via a window facing the Empire State Building.

It is worth noting that Tesla was convinced that there was power associated with the number 3, and he was quoted as saying, “If you knew the magnificence of 3, 6, and 9, you would know the key to the universe.”

If you like detective stories and graphic novels, then I highly recommend this one. I for one will be reading the subsequent installments in this arc. Thanks for stopping by, and may you always discover new and interesting things to read.

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“Those Who Don’t Believe in God Believe in Everything” by Umberto Eco

We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.

Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.

Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.

. . .

When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)

If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).

(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)

Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.

I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.

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Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

This is one of those books which was an impulse buy over 20 years ago, which I bought while wandering the aisles of a Borders Bookstore (that should put things into perspective). It has sat on my shelf all this time, waiting to be read, and I finally got around to it. One of the benefits of COVID for book nerds is that it forces us to read what we have and not wander aimlessly in search of more books.

While I was in college, Professor Bloom came and held a lecture at the community college I was attending; quite a coup for a small campus to get a speaker of his eminence. Very few people attended, but I of course showed up early and got to sit with him and have a one-on-one discussion about literature. His knowledge was formidable, to say the least.

In this book, Prof. Bloom addresses what he sees as a dilemma for readers: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” (p. 15) He strives to answer this question by focusing on 26 writers that he feels are representative of the 3 key ages of literature: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age. Understandably, Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the canon, arguing that all writers who followed Shakespeare are either influenced by his work, or seek to distinguish themselves by trying to contradict his work. He makes a good argument, and as a Shakespeare buff, I am OK placing Shakespeare at the center of a literary canon.

Since this book is essentially literary criticism, it is probably not something a casual pleasure reader would find enjoyable to read; but if one is a lit-nerd, such as myself, it becomes easy to get absorbed into the pages of this book. But again, as Bloom points out in the beginning of the book, it causes one to ask: What else should I read in my limited time here on Earth? I already had a “to-be-read” list that I could never complete, and after reading Blooms book, that list has grown three-fold. But at least I had the satisfaction of having read a good number of books which he references. That gave me a little boost.

Although Bloom was an eminent literary scholar, he stresses that this book is not intended for academics.

This book is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

(p. 518)

If you are a deep lover of literature, then you may want to give this book a read, or at least refer to the long list of books and writers at the end which Bloom considers canonical (I believe you can find the list on the internet). While I may not agree with all of his choices, it is a good list of stuff to choose from.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you find lots of books to interest and inspire you.

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“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare

This past weekend was a milestone for Stuff Jeff Reads. After publishing my thoughts on The Tempest, I have officially covered every Shakespeare play on my blog. Fear not, though. If you are a Shakespeare fan, there are still plenty of sonnets, as well as some longer poems for me to read and write about.

So here is the list of all 38 plays, with links to my reviews. In addition, you can access everything in my archive via the Books & Poems by Author page. Enjoy, and never stop reading!

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“The Roots of Europe” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.

In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.

Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)

Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.

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