New book day

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Super sweet score from the free book table at the office today!

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On Reading as a Grad Student

This year I’ve been keeping a list of all the books I’d read. I’ve done this before (and I’ll write more about why at the end of the year), but not consistently (I’ll write about that too). I had a look over the reading list for this year and was struck by how few books I put on the list from my thesis reading.

It’s November and there are only 8 books that I’d read from cover to cover. I found that somewhat surprising – but on reflection, not at all surprising.

The PhD is a peculiar beast, as I’d noted elsewhere, which means that the kind of research you do for it is also peculiar. I simply don’t have time to read every secondary text in full, no matter how much I’d like to. Indexes are my friends – I look for the discussion of what I’m working on, get the arguments I need and move on.

I devote much more time to primary sources – I try to make sure I read the texts I’m actually writing about very carefully and usually more than once (except Malebranche’s the Search After Truth because it’s an absolute brick).

This reflection on reading reminded me of a passage I’d read in Malebranche’s text recently:

“There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely.”

Thanks Nicolas, I feel seen.

Reading this week: Roy and Pessoa

This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.

I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.

It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.

The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.

Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?

In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.

I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.

But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.

Not all works demand such context, perhaps.

This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.

I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.

The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.

New arrivals in the office

Malebranche was kind of a dick

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I’m slowly making my way through Malebranche’s magnum opus, The Search After Truth – so far its a super fun text. Malebranche spends a lot of time in the first two major sections on criticising his contemporaries for their lack of clear thinking. This quote is just a small sample – but there are many many others in the first two books of this text. Not long after this passage, he moves on to criticising some prior thinkers: Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne. He’s particularly strong worded about Montaigne, of whom he says that “He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so.” Malebranche is by no means an exception in his harsh words about other thinkers. We see this happen today as well – with some prominent philosophers having a reputation for just how mean they are about others. Personally, I think this sort of adversarial attitude hurts us more than helps.

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Current Reading

Information Diet #003

It’s been a busy week, so I have a super long queue of things to read waiting for me, so I imagine next week’s transmission might be much longer. This week the best thing I read was Richard Flanagan’s extraordinary address to the National Press Club republished at the Guardian //

I also recommend every one of the things below.

Paul J. Griffiths on how to be an intellectual at First Things // Ben Roth is Against Readability at the Millions // Dan Chiasson on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the New Yorker // Hope Reese interviews Michelle Dean on literary criticism by women at Jstor Daily // A pretty neat looking computer game version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden // Justin Richards on walking in Epoché Magazine //