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Bookish Diversions: Despotic Bookworm
Stalin the Reader, Literature and Humanity, Finding Just the Right Word, Disposing Books, More
¶ Despotic bookworm. A new portrait of Josef Stalin exposes an underreported side of his character. “Americans usually presume that Stalin, as a mass murderer, must have been a semi-literate thug,” says Gary Saul Morson, “as if intellectuals are somehow less capable of brutality. At best, they figure that Stalin, as his enemy Trotsky asserted, was a consummate intellectual mediocrity. In fact, Stalin was not only highly intelligent but also supremely well-read.” While more literary than many might imagine, he was, of course, still a monster.
¶ How war literature rescues our humanity. “When Joseph Stalin was Commissar of Munitions during the enforced famine . . . which killed almost four million Ukrainians in the mid-30s, he told a group of his colleagues that ‘If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.’ . . . The task of war literature is to transform shadows into pictures, to put flesh upon the bones of mere statistics.”
¶ G.K. Chesterton on the value of literature: “The ‘Iliad’ is only great because all life is a battle, the ‘Odyssey’ because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle.” A Defence of Nonsense and Other Essays (1911).
¶ Literature offers language for our experience. Zena Hitz reviews Roosevelt Montás’s Rescuing Socrates: “Montás describes both his achievements and his ordeals in terms given to him by the great books, thus demonstrating the relevance of old texts to contemporary human life.” Here’s Montás in his own words.
¶ Fully human in Babylon. The Epic of Gilgamesh presents the distance between savagery and civilization on a sliding scale. “Social life is not about raw strength and assertions of power, but also about communal duties and responsibility.”
¶ There’s a word for that. But what is it? James Parker’s ode to his thesaurus.
¶ The ongoing appeal of Old English. “What I love the most about Old English is stumbling upon words that are now obsolete but that still resonate strongly in my own life. These include ūht-cearu (care that comes early in the morning) and ān-genga (‘one-goer’, the perfect word for someone who’s a bit of a loner).“
¶ Something somber. “We’re into our middle age, and still renting, still barely making the bills, owning nothing, with nothing anchoring us but these piles of books. . . . One day, instead of passing on a home, or a savings account, I will pass on these books, which my children will donate, somewhere, unwanted.”
¶ I cull my library pretty regularly. Some I pass along to colleagues; most I donate. But some folks just toss volumes they no longer want: “Approximately 320 million books, which amounts to approximately 640,000 tons of books, are sent to landfills throughout the U.S. annually.”
¶ All the books we’ve lost. I reviewed Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weudwen’s book, The Library: A Fragile History, earlier this year. It details the loss that occurs when we devalue books. A new study tries to capture the scope of the loss from the Middle Ages. “The researchers concluded that a humbling 90% of medieval manuscripts preserving chivalric and heroic narratives—those relating to King Arthur, for example, or Sigurd (also known as Siegfried)—have gone. Of the stories themselves, about a third have been lost completely, meaning that no manuscript preserving them remains.”
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