My Two-Thirds Book Challenge Personal Assessment

In October 2011, after finishing another book reading challenge, which a friend of mine had handled excellently, I decided it was my turn to reciprocate, and I wanted another reading challenge, so I came up with the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

This post is my reflection on how it went for me.

Initial choices

I made a list of 30 books of which I hoped to read 20. Then, because I’m a cataloger/classifier, I divided them into 6 gross categories just to see what areas I had picked and then to maybe lean towards reading at least one from each to ensure my reading stayed broad. (Of course, I read many other books during this timeframe that were not on my Challenge list. Many of those were graphics novels and poetry.) After a couple of months, because of certain timely shifts in interest I non-specifically substituted 2 books.

My full set of initial choices and their categories can be seen at My Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

How it worked out

The following is how it worked out for me. The books listed are the ones I finished (and 2 which I started but did not finish yet):

HISTORY / ANTHROPOLOGY / RELIGION

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade

PHILOSOPHY

In Defence of the Enlightenment by Tzvetan Todorov (substitute)

LITERATURE / FICTION / POETRY / CRITICISM

Pale Fire (Everyman’s Library, #67) by Vladimir Nabokov

The Way It Is by William Stafford

Transformations by Anne Sexton

PROFESSIONAL READING

(Began only) Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet by Christine L. Borgman

(Began only) Libraries and the Enlightenment by Wayne Bivens-Tatum (substitute)

Thoughts/Commentary

As is fairly evident, I did not do well with the challenge I set myself. I finished 6 books (30%) and began 2 others out of the 20 I was aiming for.

Now, there are extenuating circumstances seeing as we moved halfway across the country this summer, which sucked up an awful lot of time. We also jumped into life in Bend with both feet when we arrived which only made the moving in process longer. (I hope to be writing here about some of the things we have done since arriving in Bend soon).

Extenuating circumstances or not, I am perfectly happy with the way the challenge turned out for me as I explicitly learned something about myself. I was loosely aware of it before, but this just cemented it.

That is, there are too many interesting books out there for me to specify what I will be reading over the next year.

I still want, and intend, to read all of the books on my challenge list. Just as I intend to read many others on previous lists or those on no particular list. There will also be many new books or books new to me that I will read. (E.g., we have acquired 136 books in the 1st 9 months of 2012 (during the Challenge) but that number doesn’t include books acquired in Oct-Dec 2011, nor the many books read from assorted libraries.)

So, the bottom line is, I need a somewhat looser form of reading challenge to be ‘successful’ by any sort of standard measure. Maybe as vague as “I’ll read x number of books in the next year” is the best I can do. I would hope to be able to provide a little more structured early guidance to myself perhaps, but I’m not sure I know what that is. While my reading choices are not fully based on whim by any means, they are heavily influenced by a wide variety of input mechanisms—friends (in assorted ways), sites like Goodreads or Library Thing, tweets by others, the book catalogs that two librarians (us) receive in the mail, browsing shelves in multiple places, book reviews stumbled across, and so on and on.

There simply are too many books out there waiting to be read for me to be so scheduled about what I will read. And I am perfectly happy with that.

I hereby declare the Two-Thirds Book Challenge a success for me. I look forward to seeing how the other participants assess their own personal Challenges.

 

 

 

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 12

[This post has been too long in coming. It should have happened in early Oct. as the Challenge technically ended at the end of Sep. but see below.]

This is update 12* in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

This is the last monthly update for the Two-Thirds Book Challenge that I issued last year. I will not be issuing “report cards” (as Jen!! inquired) but I will gladly do a follow-up round of everyone’s individual assessments as long as they are posted before Thanksgiving. This has never been a contest or a strict, rules-based, endeavor. It has always been a personal challenge that involved some “criteria,” as I labeled them, that I put down as guidelines. Your challenge was only with yourself. So please assess with that in mind.

I hope to write a short post on how the Challenge turned out for me and what I learned about my own reading proclivities from it. It is nothing earth shattering but it helped me to know myself better.

On to September’s posts:

 E

2/3 Book Challenge: Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins

Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins

For the last month I’ve been carrying the book back and forth between work and home, intending to chip away at this review, intending to copy down the many excerpts from dog-eared pages that made me gasp, gave me painful goosebumps, pricked my eyes with the beginnings of hot tears.

Evidence of Things Unseen is a love story. It is small and domestic, but it is also about science and technology and the ways those things disrupt and transform. It is about two very ordinary people who meet at the cusp of an era.

Intriguing.

no simmering life but a boiling one

The Diaries of Anais Nin

A complicated post but an honest one. “… no simmering life but a boiling one, no small compromise with reality.”

2/3 Book Challenge: Bluets

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I don’t know how to write about this book. I don’t even know where to begin. As I think about it, I keep coming back to the idea of a tone poem, a single extended meditation on a single theme – in this case, the idea of blue. Blue of lapis lazuli, of sadness, of pornography. A love affair with a color, an exploration of the sensation of perceiving color, of the experience of feeling, of the feeling of loss, of the loss of a love.

A couple of quotes and a bit more commentary follows. I’d say she did a good job writing about it. I would like to read it now.

2/3 Book Challenge: How a Person Should Be

How A Person Should Be? by Sheila Heti

Pretty terrible.

No, a person shouldn’t be terrible; the book was.

2/3 Book Challenge: Let’s Bring Back

Let’s Bring Back by Lesley M.M. Blume

“The book is a celebration of nostalgia, of the manners and customs of a better time.” With a broad definition of ‘a better time,’ the book argues for the return of things such as naps and certain kinds of style. Rhetorically a kind of nostalgia, it sounds as if its arguments serves a better purpose than most nostalgia does. Sounds interesting.

Jen!!

And lastly (book challenge)

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs

Another Tempe Brennan mystery that doesn’t disappoint, this time bringing controversy surrounding a set of bones that some believe to be those of Christ.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

A classic that I hadn’t read before. My great love of mysteries was come by naturally, and when my dad gave me ton of paperbacks that had been my grandma’s, there were only a few Christie books in there. Although I still have a lot on the reading list to catch up on, I look forward to working in more of her books. … This is also the first book that I’ve read on the Kindle. I’ve read excerpts and a short story, and I have to say that reading a book on the device was a little disconcerting.

Ah, yes. Electronic reading. Doable (generally), but different. Different affordances; different ways of doing things.

Helen

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Book 21

Yarn: Remembering the Way Home by Kyoko Mori

Absolutely one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Honestly, go read the rest of Helen’s review on your own. It is wonderfully written and I do not want to ‘steal’ more of it than I did just now.

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Book 22

Misconception by Ryan Boudinot

This one is a snapshot of struggling families, first loves, hard moral dilemmas, violence and all the other things that go with being an adolescent in the imploding family.

True to life, perhaps, but focuses too much on the “horror and otherness.”

* Helen is taking another month for some adjusted expectations and I fully encourage that: My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Adjusted Expectations [Of course, at this point, it is kind of irrelevant since the month has already past but I wanted to include this post of hers too. And I apologize to the other Challenge participants for being so far behind that I didn’t let them know they could take another month if they wanted.]

OCT

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Book 23

More Baths, Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself by Nick Hornby

Helen gave this 5 stars. Exquisite thoughts on book reviewing; read her review and then maybe read the book. I am going to. Just added to my Goodreads.

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Book 24

New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine

Another 5 star review. “This book is stunning. … It’s beautifully done, and don’t skip the notes at the end. Some of the asides are priceless.”

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Book 25

Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori

Having not read this book, I’d say this sounds like a great description:

I’m really not sure how to review this book. Everything I write sounds trite. I loved it, and it’s a wonderful story about families in the evolving cultural landscape of Japan. It’s also about being an outsider, being a little different, in a world that doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for that kind of thing, but it has more room than you would expect. It’s about complicated families. It’s a YA novel but it doesn’t feel like one.

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge 2011/12 – Book 26

Paying For It by Chester Brown

I enjoyed this graphic novel way more than I expected to. It’s not even that I agree with the author’s point of view — in most cases I just don’t — but he is totally committed to exposing himself with as much honesty and candor as is available.

One-dimensionality of the women in the story and an “extended diatribe” in the “extensive notes” do mar it. Though, Helen contends it will force you to think about important issues. Keep in mind, the full title of the book is Paying For It: A Comic Memoir About Being A John.

 Wrap-Up

So, this wraps up this post and the year for the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

There will be a final roundup of individual readers’ roundups, some time before the end of November. (I would like to count it in my DigiWriMo total. Shameless, I am.)

Participants, please alert me to anything I missed. I apologize in advance if I did.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 11

This is update 11 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Helen

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 18

Tracing Stars by Erin E. Moulton

“I loved it. The characters, quirky and real, are like anyone you might know having grown up in New England, especially if you grew up in tourist traps and/or with fisherman. … I couldn’t put it down. I have already recommended it to local awards committees.”

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 19
Sneaky Pie for President by Rita Mae Brown

“I think it’s fun that, in an election year, RMB really tried to get into the brains of critters and what issues they might get behind. …

While the concept is a really fun way to frame a slice of politics and I appreciate the plot that leads up to Sneaky Pie announcing her candidacy, but most of the time it felt forced. … Probably not the best choice for your first RMB, but definitely worth adding to your list.”

Jen!!

Appetite for Life, The Biography of Julia Child by Noël Riley Fitch

“This book has been a long time in the reading. I started reading it not long after seeing the movie Julie and Julia. …

For as much time as it took me to read the whole thing I can say that it was completely worth it. … The details that are including are sometimes cumbersome to wade through, especially for a slow reader such as myself, but the complete picture that emerges could not be more worth it.”

little princes by Conor Grennan

“The book is adventure, hope, and all things good rolled up into one. I can’t tell you how many times it had me teary eyed or in full blown tears. Happy tears.”

About the lost children of Nepal see also Next Generation Nepal

E

2/3 BOOK CHALLENGE: THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL

“… I’m pretty sure it is THE PERFECT BOOK to read in those circumstances. It’s trashy enough – a young married girl seduces a king! who is then seduced by her sister! who convinces him to leave his faithful wife and take on Rome in order to get her in bed! and then maybe seduces her brother because she can’t manage to give the king a male heir! – to pick up and put down between dips in the lake or shots in the arm or x-rays. It’s enthralling enough – lush descriptions of food and dancing and sex and the countryside, at least reasonably accurate English history – to keep the reader distracted from the fact that her arm is in traction and her summer plans have been derailed. And it’s thick enough, at 672 pages, to last through those interminable appointments, waiting for bad news but hoping for good.

In short: an excellent beach read. Maybe not an excellent READ, but an excellent beach read, and just what the doctor ordered for my broken arm summer.”

2/3 BOOK CHALLENGE: IN PRAISE OF SLOWNESS

Miss E wasn’t all that satisfied with this book and its approach to the topic. But since slowness is its topic I’ll refrain from attempting to abstract her review and leave it to you to mosey on over to that link and read it for yourself.

ADMINISTRIVIA

Well, folks and 2/3 Challenge readers, only one more month left. Will we individually attain our stated goals? We will be OK with ourselves even if we don’t? Big questions that cannot be answered until next month. Which, at this point, is in two more weeks.

Sorry for the late post again this month. Two trips over the Cascades to Corvallis so Sara could attend training were the main delaying factors this month.

 

 

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 10

This is update 10 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Sorry this is so late but we were moving. As it is, we are still surrounded by boxes and my computer is at a very makeshift, extremely unergonomical desk. But I am digressing from the task at hand and best finish before the task is upon me again for this month.

Helen

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 13
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

“This story spins current culture out to an extreme, but frighteningly plausible, future.” … “It isn’t hard to see why this story is considered one of the best modern sci-fi books. There is no explicit statement about why this world is as it is, you’re left to come to your own conclusions about how our current world leads to this one, with only small hints as to the major defining factors.”

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 14
Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

She’ll be sad to see the series end, “even if it is reading candy.”

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 15
Home by Toni Morrison

This was a 5 star book for Helen.

“This story is short for Morrison and offers what reads like a small slice of life. But, on further examination, it covers a full and varied cross-section of topics including southern life, siblings, eugenics, post-war trauma, family life, folk lore, loss, love, poverty, mental health, women’s health, childhood, war, education, country life, city life, and so much more.”

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 16
Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

Another 5 star book for Helen. “As indicated by anyone ever, this book is awesome.”

My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 17
Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

“Something about part two feels a little out of balance. … That said, the story itself is a fitting conclusion and still excellent, I just wish whatever extra bit was shoehorned in there had been left out, even if I can’t adequately identify it!”

E

2/3 BOOK CHALLENGE: LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN
Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I cannot even begin to do justice to Miss E’s comments on this book. Please read them for yourself.

That’s it for this month, folks.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 9

This is update 9 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

It looks like E was the only one able to get some reading done and to write about it during this scorcher of a month. So without further ado, here’s E on

Runaway by Alice Munro

And Runaway is subtle. This review by Jonathan Franzen captures the beauty and challenge of Munro’s writing – it focuses on small but compellingly human stories. Nothing happens on a historically momentous scale, but the stories she tells are full of those small events that feel historically momentous: meeting a stranger, deciding to leave, making a promise, learning the truth, falling in love, remembering.

Since I am in the process of moving—oh, I haven’t mentioned that here, have I?—and will be in the last days of the process at the start of August, next month’s post will probably be a little bit late.

Guess I better post something this weekend about the move.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 8

This is update 8 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Jen

Heat Wave by Richard Castle

“… a gimmick. But a fun one nonetheless. … The first book, Heat Wave, is exactly what I expected: A light, fun crime mystery.” Based on the TV show, Castle, with Nathan Fillion.

Helen

A Touch of Dead (Sookie Stackhouse: The Complete Stories by Charlaine Harris

Consisting of 5 short stories that, by the author’s own admission, don’t really fit the flow of the main story line, this volume is a quick weekend read but maybe not worth the effort except to the most extreme Sookie junkies and completist.

E

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

… And that? That is why I loved this book. Because it reminded me that the lines between truth and fact and between art and artifice are inherently blurry, and that crossing that line should be painful and exhilarating.

You really need to read E’s review to do it justice.

That’s it for this month. Sorry for the late posting but I was doing some traveling.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 7

This is update 7 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

It seems that Helen is the only one who got any books read and/or posted about this month … so, we’ll start with her.

Helen

The Big Cat Nap by Rita Mae Brown

I love this series. Through 20 years I feel like I’ve grown up with these characters. They’re effortless and real in a way that feels genuine, even in such a contrived environment as the murder mystery can be. … I hope she never stops this series!

Read her review to find out the topics covered in this book.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

This was a 5 star book for Helen.

This is a slice of her life across the singular topic of being adopted. That sounds so simple, but no one is better equipped to express the exquisite agony and beauty of this topic from childhood, with her severe, evangelical adopted mother, to the present, meeting her biological mother and family. Nothing about it is simple, nothing is expected.

She refuses to make a simple syrup of her experiences and so takes us all to a place where there is no separation between emotions and thought, where feeling and thinking happen simultaneously and equivalently and the mess that is. It sounds complicated, maybe overly so, and it is. That’s life.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Helen gave some good reasons for not liking this one very much:

There were a numbers of barriers to enjoyment for me reading this book. I was just glad it was so short, otherwise I would have quit.

First, this is the 15th in the Canongate Myths series (http://www.themyths.co.uk/) and it was only three stories ago that they covered a Norse myth. I love the Myths series, but not spacing these two stories out more was a big oversight, especially since the other story was so much better. I mean light years, so having them close like this made the superiority of the other story just that much more obvious.

Too much description, a bad transition, and a disjointed essay at the end are the other reasons. Read her review to get the details.

On the Canongate Myth series as a whole she writes:

Prior to this I have only disliked one other book in the Myths series, so I still think they’re batting average is pretty high! But, if I were just getting into the series, I wouldn’t start here. I might even skip it altogether.

Sara and I have both read the opening book in this series, and Sara has read a few more of them. I believe she has generally liked them.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

A.Maz.Ing. This book is not only stunningly gorgeous to look at but beautifully written. Every page, even the filler pages, were a treat to explore. …

Just go read her review. And then, perhaps, read the book. I know I will be doing so.

Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry by Liana Krissoff

So even though a “wee bit too hipster homesteader for me in style,” the author’s “genuine and it makes me feel like I might actually be able to make these things. … I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to try to make so many recipes in a cookbook, and that’s all there is to say.”

Interesting review and if you want an introduction to canning, or are looking for good canning recipes, then this might be a book for you.

Everyone else

I apologize if I missed something by the rest of you but I poked the feed reader, your blogs and my diigo tag and didn’t find anything. Perhaps next month.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 6

This is update 6 in the Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Helen

Helen has been quite busy this month … catching up on blogging things that she has read over the last few months.

Trinity by Leon Uris

She gave this one 5 stars in goodreads. “It is a dreary & beautiful slog through fictionalized history of a conquered people.” See her review for more.

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

This collection of short stories garnered 3 stars from her. While the “stories were all technically very well written” she “just kept thinking over and over that it was all trying too hard. The writing was effortless and a pleasure to read, but the story was always a little too hip, a little too cool, a little too ‘look how shocking.'” She hopes to try some of his more recent stuff before writing him off.

Pure Drivel by Steve Martin

“Usually I love Steve Martin’s writing, but this one was a miss for me.” 3 stars. See her review for why this one just didn’t work for her.

Scenes From An Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine

Another 5 star book. “I hear that this comic isn’t his best work from lots of folks, but since a) I’ve read and loved all his work and b) I feel a kinship to his attitude about most things, I feel qualified to say this book was awesome.” As someone ‘recently’ married, she has convinced me to read it.

Murder Unleashed by Rita Mae Brown

“This story is a murder mystery that encompasses a wide variety of topics including but not limited to: the mortgage crisis, squatter’s rights, hunger both human and animal, coyote’s and ranch politics, cattle farming, campaign finance, school buses, and sex industry workers. I’m sure there was more, plus the everyday lives of regular characters. The story is easy and RMB has a gift for packing a lot of content into a weekend read without making it laborious.”

She thinks the series is improving but read her review to find out why she only gave it 3 stars.

 Jen!!

After a drought, two books down

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

“This is the fourth book in the Dresden series and I loved it. It lived up to Butcher’s standards for adventure, inventiveness, and fun.”

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

“[I]nspired by a reference in The Violets of March” she was led into the Stacks at UIUC and was “glad that I followed through on reading it. … Indeed, I found it a thoughtful telling of a life, the choices made, and the results that come from those choices.”

Sounds like a good read. And Brava, Jen, for daring the Stacks! I miss them so very, very much!

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

Past, present, Vienna, World War II, art, death and lovers. Wow. “The book drew me in almost instantly, making want to know more about the characters–their past, their future, how they would deal with the present. … This book is a wonderful get-a-way from the day to day and I especially like the time shifting of it and getting to witness the impact that the choices made in one’s youth had on the future.”

Sara

Quiet Renaissance Power

Sara reviewed two books “that were very different but struck similar chords” for her, which she read during the same time period as part of her Creativity theme for the 2/3rds Book Challenge: Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain, and The Renaissance Soul: life design for people with too many passions to pick just one by Margaret Lobenstine.

“In the end, I benefited from reading both of these books and I think reading them at the same time worked out really well. From Renaissance Soul, I have a list of specific goals and a timeline which actually feels realistic. From Quiet, I have several other book recommendations (I think I’ll finally get around to reading Flow now) and better ways of articulating what I need to myself and others.”

She does caution readers about an “us and them” premise which is present in both books, though.

E

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner

This was a tough one for E but it will be with her for a long time. Life often puts these complex and difficult texts in front of us during times of stress, whether we need them or not, and they change us; often for the better, more often not appreciated until much later.

Read her powerful review.

“Do I even need to tell you that there can’t possibly be a happy ending? “That story ends very badly for all involved, you know.” “Don’t all the good ones?” And then there’s this, where I am right now, drinking bourbon in the back room of my new apartment in Pilsen, listening to the whistle of trains in the distance, scanning for the moon against the night sky.”

Keep scanning for the moon, my friend. She’ll always be there for you. Day or night, day and night, she has always been there for me.

Mark

In Defence of the Enlightenment by Tzvetan Todorov

I really wanted to like this book but it let me down. Sure, my review is far more nuanced than that, and I am glad I read it, but that is the gist of my reaction to it.

See you next month.

Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment

In defence of the EnlightenmentTzvetan Todorov ; translated from the French by Gila Walker.; Atlantic Books 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

I almost bought this book when it came out in December 2009, but I had read at least one review which was not very positive. I wish I could find whatever I had read to see whether I agree with it. I have tried but I failed.

I have read at least three other Tzetvan Todorov books that I am certain of: Facing the Extreme, Imperfect Garden, and Hope and Memory. I have enjoyed them all, even when I have not entirely agreed with him.

I decided to pick this up now as I am taking a class this semester in Enlightenment Literature, or, more specifically on Anglo-American Enlightenment literature. Todorov focuses on the French Enlightenment, understandably; he has lived in France since 1963. Certainly, a few other thinkers from Germany, England, and America crop up but the vast majority of references are to French thinkers.

I read this book, in essence, twice between 3 February and 5 March 2012. I read a chapter or two and then I went back and reread and took my notes, leapfrogging slightly ahead with my reading over my note taking.

I have decided to count it as a Two-Thirds Book Challenge book as it is directly applicable to my current interests, it is a fairly meaty book for its length, and, as I said, I read it twice.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s not bad but it seemed a little narrow-minded, or defensive, perhaps. And, yes, I am fully aware that it is supposed to be a defense; but, there is a fine line between making a defense and being defensive.

Contents:

  • Introductory Note
  • 1 The Project
  • 2 Rejections and Distortions
  • 3 Autonomy
  • 4 Secularism
  • 5 Truth
  • 6 Humanity
  • 7 Universality
  • 8 The Enlightenment and Europe
  • A Note of Conclusion
  • Notes

The physical book (hardbound) is a nice artifact, well edited, no typos, with good margins, but no index.

§ Introductory Note

“… I set out here to outline the key points of Enlightenment thought, without losing sight of our times, in a continual back-and-forth movement between past and present” (2).

§ The Project

Trying to define the Enlightenment project is difficult for two reasons: (1) It “was a period of culmination, recapitulation and synthesis, not one of radical innovation”; and (2) “Enlightenment thinking was formulated by a great many individuals who, far from agreeing with one another, were constantly engaged in bitter discussions, from one country to another and within each country” (3-4).

Three ideas form the basis of the Enlightenment project, according to Todorov:

  1. autonomy
  2. the human end is the purpose of our acts
  3. universality (4-5)

“[W]hat we need today is to re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences. … [I]t is through criticism that we remain faithful and put its teaching into practice” (23).

§ Rejections and Distortions

Enlightenment thinking was the subject of much criticism, particularly from the civil and church authorities that were being challenged (25). Many criticisms were directed against caricatures of Enlightenment thought, while some simply misread its spirit, Todorov tells us.

But this is one of the weak points of the book; Todorov told us earlier that many different and disparate voices vehemently disagreed about what exactly was the Enlightenment project but throughout the rest of the book he gives us a pretty straightforward account, claiming that such-and-such is the Enlightenment view of each topic that he covers. But it simply is not that easy. While I agree with him in general outline most of the time, the discussions he provides really need to be more complicated and nuanced. Perhaps that would lengthen the account but if one is going to defend the Enlightenment then one should do it well and not use an oversimplified caricature of Enlightenment thought.

I do think he does a decent job of showing how various ideas that pass for a fairly mainstream view of the Enlightenment are actually distortions of it, and how these ideas were often bastardized in the employment of dubious, and much worse, ends.

§ Autonomy

Twofold movement: “a negative movement of liberation from norms imposed from the outside and a positive movement of construction of new norms of our own devising” (41).

Discusses various forms and kinds of autonomy, such as collective vs, individual, of thought, opinion, etc., and its abuses by thinkers such as de Sade. Some of the possible conflicts between demands for collective autonomy and individual autonomy discussed include:

  • education as indoctrination (50)
  • economic globalization (51)
  • international terrorism (51-2)
  • mass media (53)
  • influence of fashion / spirit of the age/place (53-5)
  • public opinion (54-5)
  • advertising (55)

 § Secularism

Discusses various forms of temporal vs. spiritual power and what exactly secularism is. Other threats discussed are the family, Communism, Nazism and fascism. As Todorov tells us, “The enemies of a secular society are many” (70). Several pages discuss the role of the sacred in a secular society, and it does have one.

§ Truth

Distinguishes between two types of acts and discourses, those that aim for the good and those that aim for truth (77). Also discusses dangers to truth.

“The political life in a republic and the autonomy of its citizens are threatened by two symmetrical opposing dangers: moralism and scientism. Moralism reigns when the good prevails over truth and, under the pressure of the will, facts become malleable materials. Scientism carries the day when values seem to proceed from knowledge and political choices are passed off as scientific deductions” (82-3).

The scientism that arose, and is still with us, was opposed by some Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu, Rousseau (85). Some of the dangers of scientism discussed include:

  • 20th-century totalitarianism and the elimination of ‘inferior’ races and/or reactionary classes (86)
  • the temptation to rely on ‘experts’ to formulate moral norms or political objectives (86)
  • the sociobiological’ project (86)
  • heterogeneity in the paths to knowledge (87-8).

Moralism is, of course, much older than the Enlightenment and its dangers are also discussed.

Todorov writes, “Truth cannot dictate the good but neither should it be subjugated to it. Scientism and moralism are both alien to the spirit of the Enlightenment. But a third danger exists, and that is that the very notion of truth be considered irrelevant. … [The challenge to truth in totalitarian regimes] is that the very distinction between truth and falsehood, between truth and fiction, became superfluous in light of the purely pragmatic considerations of usefulness and convenience” (91-2)

He then goes on to show several examples in the US where truth is subjugated to “usefulness and convenience” in the very late 20th-century/early 21st (92-4). We would do well to think about these kinds of issues. And, yes, he slams present day France repeatedly throughout the book, too.

§ Humanity

Discusses how the shift of the human to the center was practically Copernican; “Not surprisingly this reversal elicited strong opposition from those who defended the existing hierarchy, from Bonald to John Paul II” (103).

de Sade is again mentioned in this chapter for his distortions of Enlightenment views.

§ Universality

Discusses equality and human rights, along with challenges to them such as the death penalty, political correctness, and relativism.

§ The Enlightenment and Europe

Discusses why the Enlightenment happened where and when it did considering that none of its ideas were particularly new, and some went back thousands of years.

“The lesson of the Enlightenment consists in saying that plurality can give rise to a new unity in at least three ways: it encourages tolerance through emulation; it develops and protected a critical spirit; and it facilitates self-detachment, which leads to a superior integration of the self and the other” (143-44)

§ A Note of Conclusion

On why the Enlightenment still holds relevance today:

“The reason for its topicality is twofold: we are all children of the Enlightenment, even when we attack it; at the same time, the ills fought by the spirit of the Enlightenment turned out to be more resistant than eighteenth-century theorists thought. They have grown even more numerous. The traditional adversaries of the Enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut. This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. … Added to this are modern distortions of the Enlightenment, in the form of scientism, individualism, radical desacralization, loss of meaning and wholesale relativism, to name a few” (149-50).

The Enlightenment may be history but it is still extremely relevant today. Enlightenment thinking was highly complex, and it was disputed by those within and without the project. It deserves not to be oversimplified.

This is a decent book and it was worth reading, but it is flawed by simplification where there should have been complexity.

Two-Thirds Book Challenge, a non-update

It looks like all of us have been too busy to finish any of our reading and post a review on our blogs this month. Not a problem; forward only requires one step at a time.

In related news, though, while I am here, I will be adding (substituting) a few titles to my list. I am not picking any in particular to replace but am simply going to count a few that weren’t on the original list.

One of these, which I finished this evening, I read twice. I read a chapter or two and then went back and reread them and took my notes. I finished my reread and note-taking of the last two chapters and epilogue this evening. I’ll write it up soon, I hope. That book is:

Tzvetan Todorov ; translated from the French by Gila Walker. (2009). In defence of the Enlightenment. Atlantic Books.

Another book I am adding is one I received yesterday and am fidgeting to get started on as I am hoping to put it to use for one of my papers in Enlightenment Lit this semester. That book is:

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (2012). Libraries and the Enlightenment. Library Juice Press.

So, onward to next month, friends. Good reading, all!