Classics

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1913] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33589-7.
The link above is to a paperback reprint of the original 1913 novel, 16th in the original Tom Swift series, which is in the public domain. I actually read this novel on my PalmOS PDA (which is also my mobile phone, so it's usually right at hand). I always like to have some light reading available which doesn't require a long attention span or intense concentration to pass the time while waiting in line at the post office or other dreary moments one can't program, and early 20th century juvenile pulp fiction on a PDA fills the bill superbly. This novel lasted about a year and a half until I finished it earlier today in the check-out line at the grocery store. The PalmOS version I read was produced as a demo from the Project Gutenberg EText of the novel. This Palm version doesn't seem to be available any more (and was inconvenient, being broken into four parts in order to fit on early PalmPilots with limited memory). For those of you who prefer an electronic edition, I've posted downloadable files of these texts in a variety of formats.

October 2004 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-175-7.
Here's where it all began—the first episode of the original Tom Swift saga. Here we encounter Tom, his father Barton Swift, Mrs. Baggert, Ned Newton, Eradicate Sampson and his mule Boomerang, Wakefield “bless my hatband” Damon, Happy Harry, and the rest of the regulars for the first time. In this first outing, Appleton is still finding his voice: a good deal of the narration occurs as Tom's thinking or talking out loud, and there are way too many references to Tom as “our hero” for the cynical modern reader. But it's a rip-snorting, thoroughly enjoyable yarn, and the best point of departure to explore the world of Tom Swift and American boyhood in the golden years before the tragically misnamed Great War. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects a few typographical and formatting errors I noted whilst reading the novel.

January 2005 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2005. ISBN 1-414-24253-0.
This is the second installment in the Tom Swift saga. These early volumes are more in the genre of juvenile adventure than the science fiction which emerges later in the series. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical and formatting errors I noted in reading the novel.

May 2005 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Airship. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-177-3.
Following his adventures on land and lake, in this third volume of the Tom Swift series, our hero takes to the air in his hybrid dirigible/airplane, the Red Cloud. (When this book was written, within a decade of the Wright Brothers' first flight, “airship” referred to any flying craft, lighter or heavier than air.) Along the way he survives a forest fire, thunderstorm, flying bullets, false accusation of a crime, and an irritable schoolmarm not amused by having an airship crash into her girls' school, and solves the crime, bags the perpetrators, and clears his good name. Bless my seltzer bottle—never get on the wrong side of Mr. Wakefield Damon!

Apart from the arm-waving about new inventions which is the prerogative of the science fiction writer, Victor Appleton is generally quite careful about the technical details—All American Boys in the early 20th century knew their machinery and would be all over a scribbler who didn't understand how a carburetor worked! Here, however, he misunderstands lighter than air flight. He describes the Red Cloud as supported by a rigid aluminium gas container filled with “a secret gas, made partly of hydrogen, being very light and powerful”. But since the only thing that matters in generating lift is the weight of the air displaced compared to the weight of the gas displacing it, and since hydrogen is the lightest of elements (can't have fewer than one proton, mate!), then any mixture of hydrogen with anything else would have less lift than hydrogen alone. (You might mix hydrogen with helium to obtain a nonflammable gas lighter than pure helium—something suggested by Arthur C. Clarke a few years ago—but here Tom's secret gas is claimed to have more lift than hydrogen, and the question of flammability is never raised. Also, the gas is produced on demand by a “gas generator”. That rules out helium as a component, as it is far too noble to form compounds.) Later, Tom increases the lift on the ship by raising the pressure in the gas cells: “when an increased pressure of the vapor was used the ship was almost as buoyant as before” (chapter 21). But increasing the pressure of any gas in a fixed volume cell reduces the lift, as it increases the weight of the gas within without displacing any additional air. One could make this work by assuming a gas cell with a flexible bladder which permitted the volume occupied by the lift gas to expand and contract as desired, the rest being filled with ambient air, but even then the pressure of the lift gas would not increase, but simply stay the same as atmospheric pressure as more air was displaced. Feel free to berate me for belabouring such a minor technical quibble in a 95 year old story, but I figure that Tom Swift fans probably, like myself, enjoy working out this kind of stuff. The fact that this is only such item I noticed is a testament to the extent Appleton sweated the details.

I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a month or so. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I spotted while reading the yarn.

June 2005 Permalink

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33567-6.
As usual, I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a couple of months. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I noted whilst reading the book, the fourth installment in the original Tom Swift saga.

It's delightful to read a book which uses the word “filibuster” in its original sense: “to take part in a private military action in a foreign country” but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.

September 2005 Permalink

Aratus of Soli. Phænomena. Edited, with introduction, translation, and commentary by Douglas Kidd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [c. 275 B.C.] 1997. ISBN 0-521-58230-X.

September 2001 Permalink

Bastiat, Frédéric. The Law. 2nd. ed. Translated by Dean Russell. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, [1850, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-57246-073-3.
You may be able to obtain this book more rapidly directly from the publisher. The original French text, this English translation, and a Spanish translation are available online.

April 2002 Permalink

[Audiobook] Caesar, Gaius Julius and Aulus Hirtius. The Commentaries. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [ca. 52–51 B.C., ca. 45 B.C.] 2004. ISBN 1-929718-44-6.
This audiobook is an unabridged reading of English translations of Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) and Civil (Commentarii de Bello Civili) wars between 58 and 48 B.C. (The eighth book of the Gallic wars commentary, covering the minor campaigns of 51 B.C., was written by his friend Aulus Hirtius after Caesar's assassination.) The recording is based upon the rather eccentric Rex Warner translation, which is now out of print. In the original Latin text, Caesar always referred to himself in the third person, as “Caesar”. Warner rephrased the text (with the exception of the book written by Hirtius) as a first person narrative. For example, the first sentence of paragraph I.25 of The Gallic Wars:
Caesar primum suo, deinde omnium ex conspectu remotis equis, ut aequato omnium periculo spem fugae tolleret, cohortatus suos proelium commisit.
in Latin, is conventionally translated into English as something like this (from the rather stilted 1869 translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn):
Caesar, having removed out of sight first his own horse, then those of all, that he might make the danger of all equal, and do away with the hope of flight, after encouraging his men, joined battle.
but the Warner translation used here renders this as:
I first of all had my own horse taken out of the way and then the horses of other officers. I wanted the danger to be the same for everyone, and for no one to have any hope of escape by flight. Then I spoke a few words of encouragement to the men before joining battle.   [1:24:17–30]
Now, whatever violence this colloquial translation does to the authenticity of Caesar's spare and eloquent Latin, from a dramatic standpoint it works wonderfully with the animated reading of award-winning narrator Charlton Griffin; the listener has the sense of being across the table in a tavern from GJC as he regales all present with his exploits.

This is “just the facts” war reporting. Caesar viewed this work not as history, but rather the raw material for historians in the future. There is little discussion of grand strategy nor, even in the commentaries on the civil war, the political conflict which provoked the military confrontation between Caesar and Pompey. While these despatches doubtless served as propaganda on Caesar's part, he writes candidly of his own errors and the cost of the defeats they occasioned. (Of course, since these are the only extant accounts of most of these events, there's no way to be sure there isn't some Caesarian spin in his presentation, but since these commentaries were published in Rome, which received independent reports from officers and literate legionaries in Caesar's armies, it's unlikely he would have risked embellishing too much.)

Two passages of unknown length in the final book of the Civil war commentaries have been lost—these are handled by the reader stopping in mid-sentence, with another narrator explaining the gap and the historical consensus of the events in the lost text.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 16 hours and 40 minutes. That's a big investment of time in the details of battles which took place more than two thousand years ago, but I'll confess I found it fascinating, especially since some of the events described took place within sight of where I take the walks on which I listened to this recording over several weeks. An Audio CD edition is available.

August 2007 Permalink

Chesterton, Gilbert K. Heretics. London: John Lane, [1905] 1914. ISBN 0-7661-7476-X.
In this collection of essays, the ever-quotable Chesterton takes issue with prominent contemporaries (including Kipling, G.B. Shaw, and H.G. Wells) and dogma (the cults of progress, science, simple living, among others less remembered almost a century later). There is so much insight and brilliant writing here it's hard to single out a few examples. My favourites include his dismantling of cultural anthropology and folklore in chapter 11, the insight in chapter 16 that elevating science above morality leads inevitably to oligarchy and rule by experts, and the observation in chapter 17, writing of Whistler, that what is called the “artistic temperament” is a property of second-rate artists. The link above is to a 2003 Kessinger Publishing facsimile reprint of the 1914 twelfth edition. The reprint is on letter-size pages, much larger than the original, with each page blown up to fit; consequently, the type is almost annoyingly large. A free electronic edition is available.

September 2004 Permalink

[Audiobook] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1859] 2005. ISBN 9-62634-359-1.
Like many people whose high school years predated the abolition of western civilisation from the curriculum, I was compelled to read an abridgement of this work for English class, and only revisited it in this audiobook edition let's say…some years afterward. My rather dim memories of the first read was that it was one of the better novels I was forced to read, but my memory of it was tarnished by my life-long aversion to compulsion of every kind. What I only realise now, after fourteen hours and forty-five minutes of listening to this superb unabridged audio edition, is how much injury is done to the masterful prose of Dickens by abridgement. Dickens frequently uses repetition as a literary device, acting like a basso continuo to set a tone of the inexorable playing out of fate. That very repetition is the first thing to go in abridgement, along with lengthy mood-setting descriptive passages, and they are sorely missed. Having now listened to every word Dickens wrote, I don't begrudge a moment I spent doing so—it's worth it.

The novel is narrated or, one might say, performed by British actor Anton Lesser, who adopts different dialects and voice pitches for each character's dialogue. It's a little odd at first to hear French paysans speaking in the accents of rustic Britons, but you quickly get accustomed to it and recognise who's speaking from the voice.

The audible.com download edition is sold in two separate “volumes”: volume 1 (7 hours 17 minutes) and volume 2 (7 hours 28 minutes), each about a 100 megabyte download at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition (12 discs!) is available.

September 2007 Permalink

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated by Florence Wischnewetzky; edited with a foreword by Victor Kiernan. London: Penguin Books, [1845, 1886, 1892] 1987. ISBN 0-14-044486-6.
A Web edition of this title is available online.

January 2003 Permalink

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Translated, with an introduction and commentary by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1511, 1532] 1979. ISBN 0-300-02373-1.
This edition translates the Moriae Encomium into very colloquial American English. The effect is doubtless comparable to the original Latin on a contemporary reader (one, that is, who grasped the thousands of classical and scriptural allusions in the text, all nicely annotated here), but still it's somewhat jarring to hear Erasmus spout phrases such as “fit as a fiddle”, “bull [in] a chinashop”, and “x-ray vision”. If you prefer a little more gravitas in your Erasmus, check out the 1688 English translation and the original Latin text available online at the Erasmus Text Project. After the first unauthorised edition was published in 1511, Erasmus revised the text for each of seven editions published between 1512 and 1532; the bulk of the changes were in the 1514 and 1516 editions. This translation is based on the 1532 edition published at Basel, and identifies the changes since 1511, giving the date of each.

January 2003 Permalink

[Audiobook] Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1915] 2003. ISBN 978-9-62634-286-2.
If you're haunted by that recurring nightmare about waking up as a giant insect, this is not the book to read. Me, I have other dreams (although, more recently, mostly about loading out from trade shows and Hackers' conferences that never end—where could those have come from?), so I decided to plunge right into this story. It's really a novella, not a novel—about a hundred pages in a mass-market paperback print edition, but one you won't soon forget. The genius of Kafka is his ability to relate extraordinary events in the most prosaic, deadpan terms. He's not just an omniscient narrator; he is an utterly dispassionate recorder of events, treating banal, bizarre, and impassioned scenes like a camcorder—just what happened. Perhaps Kafka's day job, filling out industrial accident reports for an insurance company, helped to instill the “view from above” so characteristic of his work.

This works extraordinarily well for this dark, dark story. I guess it's safe to say that the genre of people waking up as giant insects and the consequences of that happening was both created and mined out by Kafka in this tale. There are many lessons one can draw from the events described here, some of which do not reflect well upon our species, and others which show that sometimes, even in happy families, what appears to be the most disastrous adversity may actually, even in the face of tragedy, be ultimately liberating. I could write four or five prickly paragraphs about the lessons here for self-reliance, but that's not why you come here. Read the story and draw your own conclusions. I'm amazed that younger sister Grete never agonised over whether she'd inherited the same gene as Gregor. Wouldn't you? And when she stretches her young body in the last line, don't you wonder?

Kafka is notoriously difficult to translate. He uses the structure of the German language to assemble long sentences with a startling surprise in the last few words when you encounter the verb. This is difficult to render into English and other languages which use a subject-verb-object construction in most sentences. Kafka also exploits ambiguities in German which are not translatable to other languages. My German is not (remotely) adequate to read, no less appreciate, Kafka in the original, so translation will have to do for me. Still, even without the nuances in the original, this is a compelling narrative. The story is read by British actor Martin Jarvis, who adopts an ironic tone which is perfect for Kafka's understated prose. Musical transitions separate the chapters.

The audible.com audiobook edition is sold as a single download of 2 hours and 11 minutes, 31 megabytes at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition is available. A variety of print editions are available, as well as this free online edition, which seems to be closer than the original German than that used in this audiobook although, perhaps inevitably, more clumsy in English.

September 2008 Permalink

Netz, Reviel and William Noel. The Archimedes Codex. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-306-81580-5.
Sometimes it is easy to forget just how scanty is the material from which we know the origins of Western civilisation. Archimedes was one of the singular intellects of antiquity, with contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering which foreshadowed achievements not surpassed until the Enlightenment. And yet all we know of the work of Archimedes in the original Greek (as opposed to translations into Arabic and Latin, which may have lost information due to translators' lack of comprehension of Archimedes's complex arguments) can be traced to three manuscripts: one which disappeared in 1311, another which vanished in the 1550s, and a third: the Archimedes Palimpsest, which surfaced in Constantinople at the start of the 20th century, and was purchased at an auction for more than USD 2 million by an anonymous buyer who deposited it for conservation and research with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. (Note that none of these manuscripts was the original work of Archimedes: all were copies made by scribes, probably around the tenth century. But despite being copies, their being in the original Greek means they are far more likely to preserve the sense of the original text of Archimedes, even if the scribe did not understand what he was copying.)

History has not been kind to this work of Archimedes. Only two centuries after the copy of his work was made, the parchment on which it was written was scrubbed of its original content and re-written with the text of a Christian prayer book, which to the unaided eye appears to completely obscure the Archimedes text in much of the work. To compound the insult, sometime in the 20th century four full-page religious images in Byzantine style were forged over pages of the book, apparently in an attempt to increase its market value. This, then, was a bogus illustration painted on top of the prayer book text, which was written on top of the precious words of Archimedes. In addition to these depredations of mankind, many pages had been attacked by mold, and an ill-advised attempt to conserve the text, apparently in the 1960s, had gummed up the binding, including the gutter of the page where Archimedes's text was less obscured, with an intractable rubbery glue.

But from what could be read, even in fragments, it was clear that the text, if it could be extracted, would be of great significance. Two works, “The Method” and “Stomachion”, have their only known copies in this text, and the only known Greek text of “On Floating Bodies” appears here as well. Fortunately, the attempt to extract the Archimedes text was made in the age of hyperspectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and other nondestructive technologies, not with the crude and often disastrous chemical potions applied to attempt to recover such texts a century before.

This book, with alternating chapters written by the curator of manuscripts at the Walters and a Stanford professor of Classics and Archimedes scholar, tells the story of the origin of the manuscript, how it came to be what it is and where it resides today, and the painstaking efforts at conservation and technological wizardry (including time on the synchrotron light source beamline at SLAC) which allowed teasing the work of Archimedes from the obscuration of centuries.

What has been found so far has elevated the reputation of Archimedes even above the exalted position he already occupied in the pantheon of science. Analysis of “The Method” shows that Archimedes anticipated the use of infinitesimals and hence the calculus in his proof of the volume of curved solids. The “Stomachion”, originally thought to be a puzzle devoid of serious mathematical interest, turns out to be the first and only known venture of Greek mathematics into the realm of combinatorics.

If you're interested in rare books, the origins of mathematical thought, applications of imaging technology to historical documents, and the perilous path the words of the ancients traverse to reach us across the ages, there is much to fascinate in this account. Special thanks to frequent recommender of books Joe Marasco, who not only brought this book to my attention but mailed me a copy! Joe played a role in the discovery of the importance of the “Stomachion”, which is chronicled in the chapter “Archimedes at Play”.

August 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Cæsars. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004. ISBN 978-1-929718-39-9.
Anybody who thinks the classics are dull, or that the cult of celebrity is a recent innovation, evidently must never have encountered this book. Suetonius was a member of the Roman equestrian order who became director of the Imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then personal secretary to his successor, Hadrian. He took advantage of his access to the palace archives and other records to recount the history of Julius Cæsar and the 11 emperors who succeeded him, through Domitian, who was assassinated in A.D. 96, by which time Suetonius was an adult.

Not far into this book, I exclaimed to myself, “Good grief—this is like People magazine!” A bit further on, it became apparent that this Roman bureaucrat had penned an account of his employer's predecessors which was way too racy even for that down-market venue. Suetonius was a prolific writer (most of his work has not survived), and his style and target audience may be inferred from the titles of some of his other books: Lives of Famous Whores, Greek Terms of Abuse, and Physical Defects of Mankind.

Each of the twelve Cæsars is sketched in a quintessentially Roman systematic fashion: according to a template as consistent as a PowerPoint presentation (abbreviated for those whose reigns were short and inconsequential). Unlike his friend and fellow historian of the epoch Tacitus, whose style is, well, taciturn, Suetonius dives right into the juicy gossip and describes it in the most explicit and sensational language imaginable. If you thought the portrayal of Julius and Augustus Cæsar in the television series “Rome” was over the top, if Suetonius is to be believed, it was, if anything, airbrushed.

Whether Suetonius can be believed is a matter of some dispute. From his choice of topics and style, he clearly savoured scandal and intrigue, and may have embroidered upon the historical record in the interest of titillation. He certainly took omens, portents, prophecies, and dreams as seriously as battles and relates them, even those as dubious as marble statues speaking, as if they were documented historical events. (Well, maybe they were—perhaps back then the people running the simulation we're living in intervened more often, before they became bored and left it to run unattended. But I'm not going there, at least here and now….) Since this is the only extant complete history of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, the books of Tacitus covering that period having been lost, some historians have argued that the picture of the decadence of those emperors may have been exaggerated due to Suetonius's proclivity for purple prose.

This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 13 hours and 16 minutes. The 1957 Robert Graves translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin, whose narration of Julius Cæsar's Commentaries (August 2007) I so enjoyed. The Graves translation gives dates in B.C. and A.D. along with the dates by consulships used in the original Latin text. Audio CD and print editions of the same translation are available. The Latin text and a public domain English translation dating from 1913–1914 are available online.

February 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

May 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
This is the second volume of the audiobook edition of Thucydides's epic history of what was, for Hellenic civilisation, a generation-long world war, describing which the author essentially invented historical narrative as it has been understood ever since. For general comments about the work, see my notes for Volume I.

Although a work of history (albeit with the invented speeches Thucydides acknowledges as a narrative device), this is as much a Greek tragedy as any of the Athenian plays. The war, which began, like so many, over a peripheral conflict between two regional hegemonies, transformed both Athens and Sparta into “warfare states”, where every summer was occupied in military campaigns, and every winter in planning for the next season's conflict. The Melian dialogue, which appears in Book V of the history, is one of the most chilling exemplars of raw power politics ever expressed—even more than two millennia later, it makes the soul shiver and, considering its consequences, makes one sympathetic to those, then and now, who decry the excesses of direct democracy.

Perhaps the massacre of the Melians offended the gods (although Thucydides would never suggest divine influence in the affairs of men), or maybe it was just a symptom of imperial overreach heading directly for the abyss, but not long afterward Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately resulted in a defeat which, on the scale of classical conflict, was on the order of Stalingrad and resulted in the end of democracy in Athens and its ultimate subjugation by Sparta.

Weapons, technologies, and political institutions change, but the humans who invent them are invariant under time translation. There is wisdom in this narrative of a war fought so very long ago which contemporary decision makers on the global stage ignore only at the peril of the lives and fortune entrusted to them by their constituents. If I could put up a shill at the “town hall” meetings of aspiring politicians, I'd like to ask them “Have you read Thucydides?”, and when they predictably said they had, then “Do you approve of the Athenian democracy's judgement as regards the citizens of Melos?”

This recording includes the second four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided. The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 11 hours and 29 minutes with an epilogue describing the events which occurred after the extant text of Thucydides ends in mid-paragraph whilst describing events of 410 B.C., six years before the end of the war. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

August 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1876] 1995. ISBN 978-157270-307-0.
Having read this book as a kid, I never imagined how much more there was to it, both because of the depth of Mark Twain's prose as perceived by an adult, and due to reading his actual words, free of abridgement for a “juvenile edition”. (Note that the author, in the introduction, explicitly states that he is writing for young people and hence expects his words to reach them unexpurgated, and that they will understand them. I've no doubt that in the epoch in which he wrote them they would. Today, I have my doubts, but there's no question that the more people who are exposed to this self-reliant and enterprising view of childhood, the brighter the future will be for the children of the kids who experience the freedom of a childhood like Tom's, as opposed to those I frequently see wearing crash helmets when riding bicycles with training wheels.)

There is nothing I can possibly add to the existing corpus of commentary on one of the greatest of American novels. Well, maybe this: if you've read an abridged version (and if you read it in grade school, you probably did), then give the original a try. There's a lot of material here which can be easily cut by somebody seeking the “essence” with no sense of the art of story-telling. You may remember the proper way to get rid of warts given a dead cat and a graveyard at midnight, but do you remember all of the other ways of getting rid of warts, their respective incantations, and their merits and demerits? Savour the folklore.

This audiobook is produced and performed by voice actor Patrick Fraley, who adopts a different timbre and dialect for each of the characters in the novel. The audio programme is distributed as a single file, running 7 hours and 42 minutes, with original music between the chapters. Audio CD and numerous print editions are available, of which this one looks like a good choice.

March 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1884] 1999. ISBN 978-0-393-02039-7.
If you've read an abridged or bowdlerised edition of this timeless classic as a child or been deprived of it due to its being deemed politically incorrect by the hacks and morons in charge of education in recent decades, this audiobook is a superb way (better in some ways than a print edition) to appreciate the genius of one the greatest storytellers of all time. This is not your typical narration of a print novel. Voice actor Patrick Fraley assumes a different pitch, timbre, and dialect for each of the characters, making this a performance, not a reading; his wry, ironic tone for Huck's first person narration is spot on.

I, like many readers (among them Ernest Hemingway), found the last part of the book set on the Phelps farm less satisfying than the earlier story, but so great is Mark Twain's genius that, by themselves, these chapters would be a masterwork of the imagination of childhood.

The audio programme is distributed in two files, running 11 hours and 17 minutes, with original music between the chapters and plot interludes. An Audio CD edition is available. If you're looking for a print edition, this is the one to get; it can also serve as an excellent resource to consult as you're listening to the audiobook.

June 2009 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Autour de la lune. Paris: Poche, [1870] 1974. ISBN 2-253-00587-8.
Now available online at this site.

August 2001 Permalink

Verne, Jules. La chasse au météore. Version d'origine. Paris: Éditions de l'Archipel, [1901, 1986] 2002. ISBN 2-84187-384-6.
This novel, one of three written by Verne in 1901, remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1905. At the behest of Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's son Michel “revised” the text in an attempt to recast what Verne intended as satirical work into the mold of an “Extraordinary Adventure”, butchering it in the opinion of many Verne scholars. In 1978 the original handwritten manuscript was discovered among a collection of Verne's papers. This edition, published under the direction of the Société Jules Verne, reproduces that text, and is the sole authentic edition. As of this writing, no English translation is available—all existing English editions are based upon the Michel Verne “revision”.

October 2002 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Voyage au centre de la terre. Paris: Gallimard, [1864] 1998. ISBN 2-07-051437-4.
A free electronic edition of this text is available from Project Gutenberg. This classic adventure is endlessly adaptable: you may prefer a translation in English, German, or Spanish. The 1959 movie with James Mason and Pat Boone is a fine flick but substantially departs from Verne's story in many ways: of the three principal characters in the novel, two are rather unsympathetic and the third taciturn in the extreme—while Verne was just having his usual fun with Teutonic and Nordic stereotypes, one can see that this wouldn't work for Hollywood. Rick Wakeman's musical edition is, however, remarkably faithful to the original.

April 2004 Permalink

Wells, H. G. Mind at the End of Its Tether and The Happy Turning. New York: Didier, 1946. LCCN 47-002117.
This thin volume, published in the year of the author's death, contains Wells' final essay, Mind at the End of Its Tether, along with The Happy Turning, his dreamland escape from grim, wartime England. If you've a low tolerance for blasphemy, you'd best give the latter a pass. The unrelenting pessimism of the former limited its appeal; press runs were small and it has rarely been reprinted. The link above will find all editions containing the main work, Mind at the End of Its Tether. Bear in mind when pricing used copies that both essays together are less than 90 pages, with Mind alone a mere 34.

July 2003 Permalink