Writings: Book Notes

First follow nature and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.

  1. Go to notes for Autumn 2004 – Summer 2009 (Princeton)
  2. Go to notes for Autumn 2009 – Spring 2013 (Montréal & Toronto)
  3. Go to notes for Summer 2013 – Spring 2015 (Vancouver)
  4. Go to notes for Autumn 2015 – Spring 2018 (Rome)
  5. Currently reading current book notes (Summer 2018 –)

The following are notes about books I have recently read. I restrict myself chiefly to what I read for pleasure and general cultivation; strictly scholarly reading, as well as more spiritual reading, as far as one can distinguish these scopes from the former, generally do not make their way into these pages.

  1. Ready Player One
  2. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth
  4. Alive
  5. Augustine of Hippo
  6. Neuromancer

Ready Player One   [Top]
Ernest Cline. First reading. 29 September 2018.

It's been a long time since I've had so much fun reading a novel. Ready Player One was pure entertainment. While I am far from being knowledgeable about pop trivia, I lived through enough of the era nostalgically portrayed that a large percentage of the references clicked. But beyond the cultural touchstones, the novel is simply well-plotted, creative and clever.

As a social commentary, it is not original; yes, our lives are becoming more and more immersed in the digital world, and yes, the latter will continue to be economically more and more important, but all that is rather trite. However, it is not really Cline's purpose, I would guess, to present deep reflexion on this world, but simply to use it as the stage for an adventure. Cline's only real misstep, perhaps, is a certain naïveté about the nature of power: as though only greedy corporations are capable of evil, whereas a benevolent overseer (viz., Ogden Morrow) need not be held back by basic ethical principles surrounding privacy since he only intends to use his power for good.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien   [Top]
Ed. Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien. First reading. 29 September 2018.

Writing a good letter takes a while, and Tolkien not only wrote lots of good letters, but wrote lots of long letters. He must have spent a significant fraction of many days composing and writing them out (many of the inclusions in this volume are from drafts, not fair copies). This is rather interesting since in many of them, he complains and frets about his extreme busyness. But given that this did not seem to stop him from writing long letters, one wonders if he was more worried about not having time than it actually being the case, or whether he was indeed busy and writing letters was simply high on the list of his life's priorities. At any rate, one thing I am not in doubt of is that he worked very hard as the breadwinner for his family, correcting endless examinations in order to raise sufficient funds to keep them in hearth and home—and, I gather, to educate his children.

I'm glad he did choose to spend his time writing letters, for it is a unique glimpse into his life. In fact, if I were to have a complaint about this volume, it would be in the choice of selection. There were lots of letters about his fiction: correspondence with his publisher, with informal editors and critics like Christopher Tolkien and occasionally with the Inklings, and with fans who wanted more background information about his mythology. While I did find such material fascinating on the whole, it sometimes became too detailed for my interest, and I was just as interested in his everyday life, which one only gets glimpses of here and there. This was largely by design, however, as his family preferred for his more private life to remain private, given that this volume was published less than a decade after his death. One would hope that, when sufficient time has passed, another volume might be released.

All this notwithstanding, I appreciated the many insights the letters to give one into Tolkien, the man. For one, his Catholic faith is very clear and one sees that it is by no means incidental to his identity. I was also interested to learn more of his relationship with C.S. Lewis: the latter, it seems, though certainly aware that he was in a deep friendship, did not attach as much importance to it as the former, nor did he feel the same claim of exclusivity: the entrance of Charles William into Lewis's life damaged the friendship, at least from Tolkien's point of view. On a lighter note, I was interested to learn that Tolkien had a ‘cordial dislike’ of Shakespeare, which I find rather bemusing, but does, I suppose, show the idiosyncrasy of his character.

I read a borrowed copy of this book, which I have since returned to its owner (my brother), and hence do not have the ready opportunity of including any quotations here.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth   [Top]
Daniel Grotta. First reading. 29 September 2018.

I finished Tolkien's letters on holiday, and it so happened that this biography was on one of the shelves in the house where I was staying. It seemed like a suitable follow-up. But, in truth, it was barely worth following through to the end. Apparently, not being an authorised biography, the writer got no cooperation from the Tolkien family or from many of J.R.R.'s friends, and hence had to rely on secondary and tertiary sources. The result is a fair amount of speculation, lots of background filler, and a sprinkling of factual error. The latter I easily detected having just read Tolkien's letters, though I am not aware (in my admittedly scant knowledge) of any gross error. To be fair to the writer, he did not have access to all the material that might have helped him—The Silmarillion, for instance, had not been been yet published. Nonetheless, not a very compelling read.

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors   [Top]
Piers Paul Read. First reading. 29 September 2018.

Like the previous book, this one was picked up at the house where I was holidaying. Very well done and a good example of the genre. I do confess that I never quite got straight all the many persons involved, but that did not make the story any less gripping.

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography   [Top]
Peter Brown. First-and-a-half reading. 29 September 2018.

A few years ago I started reading this life of St. Augustine, which is, I have gathered, still the authoritative biography of him in the English language, but got distracted in the middle of it. I had always intended to finish it, though, and since it had been a while, I simply started again at the beginning and read it through.

Brown succeeds at writing on two quite diverse levels. On the one hand, he provides a wonderful narrative of Augustine's life, providing vivid and detailed insight into the cultures, geographies, politics and religious movements in which he was immersed. On the other hand, as one might expect in the biography of a great thinker, a large portion of the book is about ideas, and here too Brown holds his own. I am by no means an Augustine scholar, but nothing smelt off about Brown's presentation and discussion of the various philosophical and religious ideas that Augustine tackled. They are presented lucidly, intelligently and, as far as I could see, with great scholarship. No axes appeared to be being ground, and a nice balance is kept between faithfully presenting Augustine's doctrines and providing the historical and cultural context that he was operating in.

Neuromancer   [Top]
William Gibson. First reading. 29 September 2018.

This is an Important Book in the science fiction canon, but I don't think I enjoyed it as much as others have. It is extremely inventive, but also extremely dense and immersive in its inventiveness: if you are not following closely, you get lost quickly, which I confessed happened to me not a few times.