100 Lists, Part 4 of 4

I looked at my books document the other day and realized I had exactly one hundred different lists of books.  Here are the last 25:

  1. T. C. dossier
  2. Literary mysteries
  3. 2008
  4. W. C. dossier
  5. E.’s books
  6. Cross genre classical authors
  7. Read before college
  8. Seen but not bought
  9. Plutarch
  10. Granny’s coffee table
  11. C. D. dossier
  12. To read again
  13. Mysteries
  14. Loebs to buy
  15. 2013
  16. Bookstores
  17. Before high school
  18. A. P. dossier
  19. Biographies
  20. J. F. dossier
  21. J. C. dossier
  22. Books that cannot be filmed
  23. Greek tragedy
  24. Extraordinary works
  25. Tony Hillerman

I’m surprised that there apparently isn’t another author on here like Tony Hillerman, whose Leaphorn and Chee mysteries I’ve read enough of, and in a random enough order, to need a list.  Unless he belongs in the company of Plutarch and Shakespeare.  Some of these lists barely got off the ground.  Some conflict and overlap.  They are all important to my sense of direction as a reader.

A Song of Ice and Fire for Busy People

Iceland

Maybe you are in the mood for a tale of multi-generational conflict with a cast of dozens, but you can’t spare the time for a four thousand or so page commitment?  Or if it’s not the violence, maybe you’re fascinated by an atmosphere of religious upheaval and subtle magic?  If you’re like me, you loved the t.v. series, maybe obsessed over it, and can’t tell if plunging into the novels will gratify or spoil the appetite?

As I sat up late last night struggling with Eyrbyggja Saga, it struck me that this anonymous thirteenth century Icelandic monk covered much the same ground as George R. R. Martin, but in under two hundred pages.  Where Martin creates ambiguity through involved plotting and shifting points of view, the saga achieves much the same effect through terseness.  How do the two compare?  Take the families.  Eyrbyggja deals with some of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the first settlers of Iceland, roughly around the year 1000.  The Penguin edition I was reading helpfully lists forty five characters in six lineages, but this is merely schematic and leaves out many important people.

The profusion of characters in a work this size is very hard to deal with, but on the other hand, it allows for action on an epic scale.  The maneuvering for power is unceasing and there is always the threat of violence.  Often violence is avoided by the surprisingly litigious farmers, but when it does break out there is no favor shown to likable or important figures.  And there’s no getting around the fact that some of the fighting is very cool.  Arnkel of Bolstad stands alone on the turf wall of his haystack, wielding the runner of his sledge against fifteen armed men.  An episode that has to be a monkish comedy routine about vikings concludes with Thorodd Thorbrandsson arguing with a priest over whether to reopen the wound on his neck so as to get “the head set straighter”.

I don’t want to say too much about the magic parts of the saga, because it would be hard to convey the realistic tone and because I don’t like spoiling these things.  The best thing I can say is that similar episodes in the Vinland sagas reminded me of nothing so much as Hamlet.

(I just realized that I might have made it sound like Arnkel could have survived the fight on the haystack.  Of course he didn’t! But it was still cool.)

Memory and Mathematics

I put a weak finish on 2013, reading wise.  I’ve been grinding away at grueling, plotless books for long enough that it’s hard to remember why I started.  I put aside a biography of Borges, in Spanish, that I started a while ago.  I never intended to read it at one go, but it still hangs over me.  Another is the book on Shakespeare’s language: mostly it makes me wish I were reading the plays, though I think it may prove worthwhile.

Finally, there was Philosophies of Mathematics.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  My college math had a foundational, philosophical bent, and since then I’ve continued to dabble in it.  I don’t really sympathize with fretting over whether math is created or discovered, how we apply it to nature and so forth.  I’m more interested in the constructions and the proofs that crop up in these books.  (Incidentally, it’s observed that Borges, while no mathematician, had his own taste in mathematics.  So maybe it’s not as sorry as it sounds.)

I like to believe I’ve learned a few mathematical habits of thinking.  One idea that comes up often is that of one-to-one correspondence of collections of things, or sets.  When two sets can be matched up one-to-one (like having a right shoe to go with every left shoe in your closet and vice versa) you say you have the same number.  That the correspondence exists is more important, maybe, than exactly what number you have.  This idea leads in short order to fascinating demonstrations about the different sizes of infinity.  It also informs my personal notion (I don’t remember if I might have read it somewhere) of what a number is, which I muse on when others seem to get to bogged down in the ontological status of mathematics, or the being of numbers.  Numbers are just meaningless words that we recite when we wish to compare sets of objects.  We learn numbers as children by counting along with others, the same way we learn other songs.  If you remember the song the right way every time, you can establish a meaningful correspondence between sets.  So how do we learn the song?

A couple of years ago I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.  It’s a popular history of mnemonics, with lots of amusing stories about various competitive memorizers, prodigies and a fair amount on their actual techniques.  At least one of them actually worked: By constructing a memory palace based on my old elementary school and an off the cuff list of strange images involving friends and acquaintances, I was able, with a couple hours of practice, to memorize the order of a deck of cards.  Once I got used to it I could do it in a few minutes.

Of course this amazing new skill didn’t turn into much of anything.  I’ve memorized a fair amount of poetry and I’m not bad at geography, either, but I do it by rote, and if there’s much more to it than that, I don’t know what it is.  I certainly helps if what I’m memorizing is beautiful or otherwise interesting.  Maybe when the limitations of my current method become apparent, I’ll turn again to the memory palace.  I’m interested in how other people commit things to memory and otherwise organize their thought.  Has philosophy, or the study of mathematics or some other field, changed the way you think, or do you just bang it out?