A Virtual Colloquy - What are YOU reading?!

Tag: history

The love of classic books can help humanity be more empathetic.

Book cover on book shelf of classic books.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age

What do we have to learn from classic books? What could be relevant to me inside something written by someone that has so little in common with my own time and person? How can I possibly learn anything other than what happened in the past and what went wrong?

“Much of the way we perceive ourselves and the world manifestly changes as society, language, ideology, and technology change; but we also continue to share much as creatures born of woman, begotten by man, raised with siblings, endowed with certain appetites, conscious of our own mortality, confronting nature from our various locations in culture.”

“The characters and life situations of the narratives of different eras speak to us not because they reflect a knowledge which never changes but rather because they express a set of enigmas with which we continue to wrestle.”

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter

That’s what a good book is all about. This is why we read novels, why we pick up books written a hundred years ago, by a person completely unlike us, from a place completely unlike ours. We see the commonality in the experiences of others throughout history, in fiction and non-fiction.

When we write, we create characters and put them in situations to experience and work through. While we write them, we are working through our own things, “wrestling” with that “set of enigmas.” And when you read it, you see our work and incorporate it into your own. It’s magical and crosses time and culture in a way no other medium can.

No, I’m not a young white female in Victorian England, but I can understand that character and use her experience to round out my own thinking. I’m not a black male in the American South, escaping slavery and falling in love…but I can feel those feelings, experience it, in a way through the authors words, and see ways we share humanity.

We learn empathy when we read classic books, fiction from ages past. We learn about ourselves when we experience life through another person’s thoughts, real or imagined. And we learn that what it really means to be human across all times and cultures doesn’t change that much. There’s some comfort in continuity.

Click over to my original post, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” to read my initial thoughts on this book!

Find “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” on Thriftbooks and read along with me. If you do, be sure to comment so I know you’re out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

” The Philosophy of Peace”

Philosophy of Peace book cover at a fireplace.

I picked up “The Philosophy of Peace” by John Somerville to read next. I wanted to end the month on a non-fiction note and decided this title had a nice positive ring to it. Since this book was picked up out of the pile of books I adopted from a friend, I really have nothing else to go on other than the title, so I did a quick search of the “interwebs” before I started to read it and found very little other than the book for sale across the web. Strange.

From the book itself, I see it has a copywrite of 1949. The dedication says,

Philosophy of Peace dedication.

So far so good, I suppose. We haven’t had another thing called a World War since, but we have been constantly at war all over the world, so there’s that.

There’s an inscription inside as well, and you know how much I love that.

Philosophy of Peace inscription by someone who gave the book as a gift.

I love this. Where are Mr. & Mrs. Martin Haisler and Edward W. Gray now? Why did he give this book to them? The book was published in 1949. What was it like in Hollywood, Florida then? What did they do for a living? How old were they?

If I could make a law, I’d say you have to write something in any book you read about who you are and why you are reading it or why you’re giving it. In fact, I’ve been giving books as gifts for years and from now on, instead of ordering them sent, I’m going to buy them, write a note inside and then send it personally. Time traveling again!

In search of more information about the book and author, I went directly to Wikipedia and they don’t have a page on this author. Amazon has the book listed under a used book seller with no details. The only thing I found was an obituary from the LA Times from 1994.

I’m sitting down with this, the day my youngest baby leaves the nest, with a cup of coffee and finding out what I can. Maybe it’s simply no longer relevant? That happens.

You can find “The Philosophy of Peace,” a revised edition with introductory letters from Einstein and Mann, at Thriftbooks. I’d love to see that book and compare it to my original version. If you decide to read it, let me know in the comments!

I’ve written a few posts about quotes and ideas that I found interesting as I read. Please go over and give them a read. You may find yourself wanting to read the book too…or just come argue with me.
Open and Honest Discussion of Any Ideology is the Best Cure
Can This Cardinal Rule Apply to Any Discussion?


At the end of each month I send out a newsletter where I describe all my juicy immediate afterthoughts about the books I read that month, along with various other hilarious tidbits, and a few links to my favorite posts.

It’s a special, once-a-month edition that only those who opt-in through my email list receive. If you want to be part of the club, subscribe by entering your email below!

Preference for Booze?

“The American thirst for coffee was slow to develop in a young country whose rambunctious citizens preferred booze.
In Colonial homes, beer and cider were the usual beverages at mealtimes… even children shared the dinner beer.”

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast

Even if you’re not a coffee enthusiast, this book is full of interesting stories, both cultural and economic. The first chapters cover the spread of coffee as a beverage and this line, among many others, captured my attention.

I’m not sure this was only a Colonial American thing, but we do have our special quirks. I like thinking of our nation growing out of a bunch of rambunctious, drunken youngsters, although I don’t think it’s altogether accurate.

When clean water is unreliable, beer and cider are healthier alternatives. Besides, their versions were not the 8% IPA’s that are popular today. And with a meal, a low ABA beer or cider does not have the effect you think.

I laughed at the shocking statement, “even children.” I wonder if he meant it to be that way. As if children all over the world have always been shielded from such horrors. Personally, when water isn’t available, I’d rather my children had beer or cider with a meal than a juice box or soda.

Disputes Over Ideas – Confusion of Language

Once again, the more I read about it, the more I see the similarities. Our current situation isn’t unprecedented. The end isn’t written in stone though. We could end up in a different place, as we have many other times when unrest began.

I finished watching “Trotsky” on Netflix yesterday and was out watering my trees this morning. I don’t have sprinklers. I like taking half an hour early each morning and inspecting the property while I water; a tree needs trimming, a shrub needs to be shored up, etc. It’s relaxing and meditative too. I get a chance to take a good look at what I have around me.

It’s early when I water in the summer, usually about an hour after the sun comes up. I’ve already been up for a couple of hours, reading and journaling. I’ve gone for a walk or done my yoga practice for the day.  I’m starting to get hungry for breakfast. And I’m thinking quietly, without other voices.

Today I was thinking about the book I’m reading, “A People’s Tragedy,” and the Netflix show “Trotsky.” And that led me to what I discovered about George Orwell. Well…maybe I didn’t “discover” it. I’d heard that he was a Democratic Socialist before, but when I read his books I assumed he had changed his mind and was writing to denounce it because that’s what I got from the stories. It turns out he was lamenting that the political philosophy was hijacked by thugs and ruined.

I’m getting the same feeling from the book and show today. The author of the book and the producers of the show have obvious sympathy for socialism. They are building up the benefits and positives, which they are correct about, and then showing why it failed and that it wasn’t the socialism/communism/or Marxism, that was the problem. It was bad humans.

The strange thing is what I’ve noticed about where my mind goes with the same information. I read what happened and I think, “That’s why it doesn’t work because of bad humans.” From what I’ve learned, all I see is an opening for bad people to do very bad things. Their system of government would lead to some wonderful things if we lived in a perfect world. But we don’t. And so far, it’s always ended in so much death and destruction.

I’m still studying and I’m learning a lot. I’d like to find more books about the history of Marxism and what evolved from it over the last 100 years. I’d also like to learn more about the democratic socialist movement we have today in the United States. I won’t say I’m looking for unbiased information. I don’t think that exists, but I would like to find several points of view.

A side note, I’ve tried discussing things like this on social media with friends, but it seems to me that we are all coming from different corners and we all have different definitions for words and phrases. It’s like we attempted to build a tower to reach the heavens and have been afflicted with the confusion of language, a “Tower of Babel” story. Each time I make an attempt, I’m baffled by people’s reactions and have to retreat.

Maybe it’s better to have discussions in smaller groups, so that we all have the chance to actually be heard. When I post a topic, everyone comes running at me from every direction. Friend A comments and before I can answer them, Friend B and C join in and then Friend D comes throwing insults to Friend A, replying to him instead of my post. Ugg. It’s anarchy and completely pointless.

The privacy of speaking instead of publicly writing would probably help too. Just because I commented on something or posted it, doesn’t mean it’s gospel. We seem to have lost the concept of batting around ideas and discussing things openly. We’re all making statements and defending our stances more than attempting to understand each other.

Instead, I simply post a picture of my cat. Sometimes we can agree that he’s cute and fuzzy, but then there’s always that one person that doesn’t like cats, the one that heard cats are evil and I’m evil for having it as a familiar, the one that wants to save them all from destruction and used by cults, and the one that thinks it’s just mean to keep one as a pet. Sigh.

Banning Political Thought and Expression

“Whereas in Europe new ideas were forced to compete against other doctrines and attitudes, with the result that people tended towards healthy skepticism about claims to absolute truth, and a climate of pluralism developed, in Russia there was a cultural void. The censor forbade all political expression, so that when ideas were introduced there they easily assumed the status of holy dogma, a panacea for all the world’s ills, beyond questioning or indeed the need to test them in real life.

Convinced that their own ideas were the key to the future of the world, that the fate of humanity rested on the outcome of their own doctrinal struggles, the Russian intelligentsia divided up the world into the forces of ‘progress’ and ‘reaction’, friends and enemies of the people’s cause, leaving no room for doubters in between. Here were the origins of the totalitarian worldview.”

A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

It’s things like the quote here that lead me to believe I’ve stumbled across the playbook of our current political climate. I’ll be honest, it scares me. The more I read, the more I start to see the parallels, and the more I start to think we are being played by factions of our own government, our own people.

Several times in the past few years I’ve wondered why we all seem to think it’s ok to ban certain types of speech, political and philosophical. Several times I’ve wanted to post that banning, censoring, or otherwise legislating against “hate” is a slippery slope we don’t want to be on. I want to stand up and say, “If you forbid people to speak against you, if you say to your friends and family, “This kind of thinking will not be tolerated,” you aren’t changing anyone’s heart or mind. You only drive them underground, where their supposedly hateful ideas will fester and grow.” But I’ve been afraid.

The fact that I’m afraid to publicly state that “hating” is also a protected right, even in a semi-private, friends and relations only page, makes me shudder. What kind of country have we become that we are afraid to say what we think? Where will this lead us? Reading about the Russian Revolution, I’m starting to see where it could and that makes me terribly sad in some ways and reassures me in others.

It scares me because I worry that we’ll repeat the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. I hate to see people suffer, and I’m afraid those that will suffer most are the very people that are being used as pawns in a game; the poor, uneducated, and “underprivileged” that we say we are trying to help gain a better position.

It reassures me because I’m reminded that there is actually nothing new under the sun. People have always suffered in some way. Governments have always overreached. Revolutions have happened, people have struggled, and atrocities have been committed, over and over again. Humans seem to thrive on it.

What does shine through, for me, is human ingenuity and intelligence. The more I focus on individual stories, the more comforted I am. The big picture might be terrifying, but the things we do, the lives we lead inside that picture? Wow. We’re amazing.

This book is going to take me FOREVER to read. It’s over 800 pages long and I’m currently reading abut 25 pages an hour. I’m not getting much done other than to read, write, and do basic housework, but I’ll just keep going like this until someone around here complains!

Two New Books Started This Week – Happiness & Russians!

I’m so excited about my July TBR pile! It’s going to be an amazing reading month!

The nap was apparently much needed, by the way, and when I got back the movie was over. My son commented that “Indiana Jones” is a much more interesting movie when you’re not four years old. “The sign of a great story. You can watch it again and again and get more each time.” Oh, my heart!

I also started reading “A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution” by Orland Figes this week. I’m so intrigued by the era and have been reading and watching a lot about it.

A few years ago, I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and I’ve been curious about Russian history ever since. I’ve been meaning to read more history but hadn’t found any recommendations until recently.

My youngest and I are watching “Trotsky” on Netflix on his days off work and we keep pausing it and talking. It takes our family so long to watch TV shows and movies!

And then I read a commentary article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the parallels between the Russian Revolution and our current political climate.

And…here I am. It’s all so fascinating.

“Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”

It’s my second time reading about the extraordinary popular delusions of men. Seems like now would be a good time to dive in again.

Book cover of "extraordinary popular delusions" on a desert background.

Something pulled my attention back to this book this morning as I took my walk around the neighborhood. I pulled it off my shelf when I got home and found that the last time I read it was 2012. I had bought the book at a used bookshop in Big Bear, California. And inside there’s another name, “Bob Baker, Freson, CA, April 1996.”

Who else has read this particular copy?

Opening to the forward and reading a few pages at the bookshelf, I was reminded why I loved the book so much and decided it should be my immediate next read. First published in 1841, it’s amazing to find how little humanity changes as a whole.

There is so much one could delve into with this book, so many similar theme and reactions in our own time, but I’ll leave that to greater minds than mine. I underlined and made a lot of notes in this book, but when I went back through the book to write about it, the post just kept coming out too negative and it made me unhappy to dwell on it too deeply. The big takeaway? People in large numbers are wildly unpredictable, crazy, and willing to take you along with them by force if necessary.

Instead, I’ll share with you a few of my favorite quotes. These are the ones that made me laugh or think, “Ah, humanity…you are so, so nuts!”

“His own wife was ill-favoured and ill-natured; Dee’s was comely and agreeable; and he longed to make an exchange of partners without exciting the jealousy or shocking the morality of Dee.”

Who wouldn’t want to make and exchange? And besides maybe that ill-natured woman would be a real match for someone else!

“Men, in striving to gain too much, do not always overreach themselves; if they cannot arrive at the inaccessible mountain-top, they may perhaps get half-way towards it, and pick up some scraps of wisdom and knowledge on the road.”

Striving toward any goal, whether we make it or not, at least gets us somewhere. Unless you’re striving to walk on water and can’t swim. That can’t be good. Or striving to stop some people dying from one thing, but end up killing off a lot more with the prevention or cure. That would suck, but we’d still learn something, right?

“Every age has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation. Failing these, it has some madness, to which it is goaded by political or religious causes, or both combined.”

Every age. Even this one.

You can find “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” at Thirftbooks if you’d like to read it yourself. Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your comments!


At the end of each month I send out a newsletter where I describe all my juicy immediate afterthoughts about the books I read that month, along with various other hilarious tidbits, and a few links to my favorite posts.

It’s a special, once-a-month edition that only those who opt-in through my email list receive. If you want to be part of the club, subscribe by entering your email below!

Hesitant to Admit

Each time I start a book I take a picture of it and post it to Facebook and Instagram. I was hesitant to post this one. Why? Because so many of us are taught by our church leaders not to question the bible. That the scriptures are the infallible Word of God and therefore cannot be questioned. I’m sorry to say that many of my traditional Christian friends are very close-minded and judgmental of other points of view. I’m not saying they are cruel, mean, and wrong, I’m saying they aren’t willing to consider possibilities. And that’s not a Christian trait, it’s a human one.

My question has always been, if God created man in His image, gave him a soul and discerning mind, why would He not want us to question the world around us? If the bible is so crystal clear, why are there so many vague and seemingly contradicting statements? And if Jesus wanted us to take Him at his literal word, why did he speak in parables and why didn’t he write out the words He wanted us to keep sacred? The answer I’ve come to so far is that He doesn’t, that he wants us to discover Him on our own, one on one, on our own terms. He wants us to come to Him. And He’s been trying to reach us since creation.

So I read, and I read a lot. I read about different religions, other points of view, old writings and new. And I pray. I spend some time each day in meditation and prayer, allowing myself quiet space to hear and experience that still small voice inside me, the one our creator put there. And I come to my own conclusions. And I hold those conclusions lightly. I know many people have a problem with this, but I cannot for the life of me see why. I have decided not to spend my energy trying anymore. There are some things I just cannot understand and I’m ok with that.

Once again, I cannot remember how “The Pagan Christ: Is blind faith killing Christianity?” by Tom Harpur came to my attention or why I added it to my reading list. It was likely an article I read, another book, or a podcast that I heard, but somewhere in my studies this book was dropped into my lap. The title, of course, is intriguing, and the subtitle is something I’ve considered as well. I wanted to know more.

On first glance, if someone were to insist that the stories and themes from the Old and New Testaments were not original, you’d assume that the person was trying to show you why they believe they are fakes, stolen from other more ancient works, not created by the true Son of God. But that isn’t what he’s trying to say at all.

I’ve heard from Christian teachers throughout my life that the similarities between older scriptures and unrelated teachings from other religions were put there by Satan to confuse and distract us from the truth. But that doesn’t resonate with me at all, it never has. When I come across these similarities, it doesn’t discount my faith in one creator god at all. It encourages me to dive deeper into the past, to read more, to pray more. I want to be closer God, to know who or what He really is. The similarities connect me with the past, with other cultures, and with God. They are the common denominator in the equation of life.

When I read about ancient Egyptian myths and their similarities to Christ stories, I think, “God was here too. Of course He was!” When I read about Buddhist teaching stemming from the same timeframe as Jesus, I think, “He was here too!” If God is the creator, that piece that connects every living thing that I believe He is, why would he not be? The common denominator in all scriptures across time and physical space, is the Truth.

I feel that we put a limit on God when insist that one group of people, one time, one person, one group of writings are the only time that God attempted to communicate with His creation. If I am to consider the bible as a completely historical document, it feels ridiculous. There are books that are clearly not historical and we accept that. There are also parts of books that are clearly not historical, and there are parts that we used to consider historically accurate that we clearly do not now. And then there are the parts that are clearly cultural and limited in scope. How can we assume that now, all these thousands of years later, we have distilled the bible and Christianity to what it was always meant to be?

Seeing the bible as a “Truth” document, one that can help me get a part of the picture of what God really is but never the complete picture, resonates in my heart and inspires me. God gave me a mind and a heart, one unlike any other creature He created, one like Him. I intend to use that gift.

This book added to the picture in some big ways. I’ve sifted through it a couple times after reading it, looking for quotes to jump off from and write about, but most of the pieces I highlighted or noted were personally enlightening or so complex that once I pulled them out of context, they didn’t have the same impact. But I will leave you with this one,

“Things are not simply true because someone somewhere first said them, or because they are collected in books such as the Bible. They are true because they ring with full authenticity on the anvil of our souls.”

When I read this and then sat reflecting on it for a bit, my question was, “What if it rings true to my soul alone? Or what if it rings true to a small collection of people but no one else?” My opinion is, then it isn’t Truth. Truth is the same for all people, in all times, in all cultures. The common denominator. What meets that qualification is broad and vague. To me it boils down to, love the creator and treat others as you wish to be treated. Apparently, that is more complicated than it sounds.

“A Student of History”

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Why did I pick this book from the shelf at the bookstore? Two reasons: it said “student” and “history.” I’m not picky when it comes to novels. Most times I judge a book by its cover and its synopsis. Reading the inside flap of this one, I thought it sounded a bit like Sunset Boulevard, so I decided to try it.

I have to be honest. I wasn’t that impressed. It was a good mystery. There were some interesting parts. I liked the characters mostly. But it was a little predictable and not very deep. The history would be more interesting if I was more familiar with Hollywood and Los Angeles maybe. I didn’t really care for the main character. I felt like he just fell into what was happening around him, kind of naïve, but maybe that was the point?

“Maybe I’d learn something about LA history – I was, after all, an historian – although, stupidly, with what I realize now was the particular arrogance of the overeducated and underemployed, I didn’t believe that there was anything the wealthy could teach me.”

Familiar. I think most of us believe, stupidly, that people different from us have nothing to add to our lives. That seems so bizarre. How can you learn anything from someone exactly like you? It goes both ways. The rich have something to learn from the poor too.

“I avoided the pile of books on my desk as if they were a lover with whom I’d split but still shared an apartment.”

I just loved this because I have a pile of books on my shelf just like this. I need to get to work, but someone on Facebook is wrong and I must set them straight!

“If you can’t buy something outright, you can’t afford it at all,” she said.

“Mrs. W-,” Dalton, chuckling, “the price was four hundred million dollars. Not too many people can afford four hundred million dollars.”

“That’s right!” she said. “And those that aren’t rich have no business pretending that they are.”

I know a lot of people would disagree and find this snobby, but she’s not totally wrong. If you’re making payments on something, you’ve borrowed from the future in the hope that you will be able to afford it. Save up for it instead. Houses, I guess, can be the exception, I suppose. It doesn’t make financial sense to spend money on housing AND save up for a future house at the same time. But everything else? Save up.

“And yet here he was, and my mother too – who despite her simple clothing and Target-bought handbag did not believe she was lesser than anyone.”

Attitude is everything. I wish I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I wish I could feel that I “belonged” wherever I wanted to be.

“I thought for a moment about taking a picture with my phone, but noticed that nobody else was taking pictures. Apparently the event was so commonplace that it did not require documentation.”

They weren’t taking pictures because it would be rude, not because it didn’t require documentation. Sure I’d love to remember seeing Mel Brooks at the Rite Aid in Buena Park (if it ever happened) but it would be rude to take pictures.

I don’t regret reading this book and I would recommend it for light, fun reading. It’s a good book. It’s just not one I thought was as “edgy and spellbinding” as the back cover said. It did emphasize one truism though. The divide between rich and poor is not that great. We all have our troubles. We all hurt. We all screw up. The very rich and influential have the added bonus of being public. When they do human things, we all get to watch and criticize. It’s sad really.

Two New Books

I started two new books this week. The first one, “Democracy for Realists,” was recommended by Mark Manson on New Years Eve. It’s fascinating, but a long and more difficult read for me. I can only stay focused on it for about an hour before my brain starts to get tired!

I’ve had the same idea, that elections really don’t mean anything, for a long time but couldn’t really defend it. This book is giving me some great insight to my intuition. I’ve run across a few things I don’t agree with though. Government, federal and state, has gotten into the habit of micro-managing the people and the people have learned to depend on it instead of taking care of themselves and their own families privately.  The election process we have resembles a professional sport now, with one team against another and no principles to speak of. This book gets into why that is.

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Because I can only read this book for about an hour before my brain gets buzzy, and I my goal this year is to read for an average of three hours per day, I picked up another book to read at the same time. It’s called “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson.

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I found it at the thrift store for a dollar a few months ago and was intriqued by the cover. Yep, that’s how I find books sometimes, especially if they are a dollar. If I don’t like it right away, I stop reading it and drop it back at the thrift store so they can sell it to someone else. I’m only out a dollar.

This book is turning out great! World War II, Japanese immigrants being sent to Manzanar. It’s historical fiction and one of my favorite eras. I’ve been to Manzanar with my family and read a few other books about what happened. One was called “Nisei Daughter” by Monica Sone. What I already know is blending into this story so well.

One thing I found so strange when I first started reading about the Japanese Internment was how quick we all were to “evacuate” these people. The more I read, the more I understand.

It wasn’t like we all just turned on them. We were already wary of them. Japanese culture is very different from Western culture. Many behaviors that the Japanese consider respectful and honorable, we see as rude and suspicious. It was difficult for Westerners to accept them into society and the many immigrants did not want to assimilate either. They wanted to live thier own way and be left alone. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, it was easy for us to villify the Japanese immigrants and our government was happy to comply with our wishes.

I’m really fascinated about cultural differences and how they affect people’s perception of others. Don’t think we have outgrown our wariness of strangers!

There was a lot more going on at the time, especially on the west coast of the United States. It’s a interesting topic. Since I’ve read a bit about it in the past, this story’s setting is very clear to me and a fictional account of a love triangle and forbidden relationships in the midst of World War II is icing on that cake.

I think it’ll take me awhile to read “Democracy for Realists.” It’s long and involved, but I’ll write more about it as I read. I’m already more than halfway done with “Snow Falling on Cedars.” It’s that engaging!

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