Category Archives: Reading List – Books

The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky

1880 (trans. 1990), Alfred A. Knopf, 976 pages

Book Blurb

Dostoevsky’s towering reputation as one of the handful of thinkers who forged the modern sensibility has sometimes obscured the purely novelistic virtues–brilliant characterizations, flair for suspense and melodrama, instinctive theatricality–that made his work so immensely popular in nineteenth-century Russia. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest novel, published just before his death in 1881, chronicles the bitter love-hate struggle between the outsized Fyodor Karamazov and his three very different sons. It is above all the story of a murder, told with hair-raising intellectual clarity and a feeling for the human condition unsurpassed in world literature.

Translator Blurb

This award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky–the definitive version in English–magnificently captures the rich and subtle energies of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece.

The Brothers Karamazov

High school friend HT invited me to join her book club five months ago and Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece came up for discussion at our session last Sunday. I’ve read this book years ago and was happy to revisit it. Dostoyevsky, because of his pioneering work drawing attention to our subconscious motivations, is one of my favourite authors. Nietzsche was also a Dostoyevsky fan. You could draw a line tracing Dostoyevsky to Nietzsche and from Nietzsche to Freud. In other words, no Nietzsche and Freud without Dostoyevsky.

This is a big book. Instead of our usual month-and-a-half between book clubs, we allotted two months for The Brothers Karamazov, or ‘BK’ as fans call it. And then it got extended another week, since I was in Denver to collect a book award for my recently published book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. But even this extra week wasn’t enough. Over half our book club didn’t make it through. Despite everyone’s valiant efforts, the states of completion ranged from halfway to the tens of pages from the ending. That’s telling of how tastes change.

Here’s a little bit about our book club. More women then men. Career wise we are all successful, having reached probably the top decile of our respective professions which are: interior designer, RMT, engineer, psychiatrist, and project manager. I’m not sure what one fellow does, but he recently did the Camino in Spain, and he was able to follow work with a laptop and an internet connection, so perhaps he’s a consultant of sorts?

The general complaint was that the book starts off slowly. I could see that. The religious issues that dominate the first half–the erosion of religion, the rise of free-thinking principles, the role of ‘elders’ in the church, the role of monasteries in society–have passed us by. They are no longer the burning issues they were in the mid-nineteenth century. Ivan’s tale of ‘the Grand Inquisitor’ caught people’s attention, but the problem was you had to read through so much to get to it. BK is not unlike a Wagner opera: you get ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ once in awhile, but you have to listen to a lot of other things in between. The mid- to late nineteenth century, in music and literature, was a time of epic constructions. Today we are more into Twitter, 140 characters or less, please.

While dramatic tension was slow in the building, the general consensus was the trial scene in the last third of the book is riveting. If only there were not the first two-thirds of the book to get in the way! The other observation echoed by book clubbers was that the female characters, notably Katerina and Grushenka, were cardboard cutouts more closely resembling drama queens than real individuals. I would have to agree, but I would add that everyone in the novel is a drama queen and that they are all drama queens (e.g. every conversation is “Please forgive me,” or “You’ve insulted my dignity,” or “My pride is wounded,” or “I’m all out of cash”) because no one has a job. If only Dmitri had to work our 40 hour week he would have less time to spend cavorting around with gypsies!

My burning question that I wanted to ask the book club was whether Ivan’s conjecture that “everything will be permitted” once Christianity gives way to free-thinking has come to pass. It seems in the century-and-a-half since BK came out freethinking has had a coming of age, especially out here on the westcoast, where the masses have raged into atheism. The book club consensus was that, today, in Russia, yes, Dostoyevsky was prescient. The anarchy and crime prevalent on the streets of Russia is a sign that “everything is permitted.”

I’m not so sure though. It seems to me that while Orthodoxism and religion were strong in Russia, lawlessness could also prevail. Look at how Dmitri drags around the retired captain Snegiryov by the beard. Or how Smerdyakov murders his father. I think human nature is the constant. We project human nature onto culture and society. To me, culture and society can change, but only so much as the elasticity of human nature allows. There is a bit of a moral decay theme in BK that change is always going for the worse (e.g. “Oh, if we were just in the good old days things would be better.”) I don’t find that necessarily true. From a technological point, things seem to be getting better (e.g. antibiotics, vaccinations, indoor heating, fridge, stove, and other appliances, cars, planes, etc.,). But from a moral perspective I can’t see how things can be that much different. Others will disagree. Vehemently.

The next book club read happens to be Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It will be most interesting to see if science can encroach on morality and ethics, religion’s final strongholds. Maybe science will have the final word against Ivan’s prediction that, when religion falls, “everything is permitted.” Maybe Science will be our new god?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – Manson

2016, HarperCollins, 206 pages

Book Blurb

In this generation-defining self-help guide, a superstar blogger shows us that the key to being stronger, happier people is to handle adversity better and stop trying to be “positive” all the time.

For the past few years, Mark Manson–via his wildly popular blog–has been working on correcting our delusional expectations for ourselves and for the world. He now brings his hard-fought wisdom to this groundbreaking book.

Manson makes the argument that human beings are flawed and limited. As he writes, “not everybody can be extraordinary–there are winners and losers in society, and some of it is not fair or your fault.” Manson advises us to get to know our limitations and accept them–this, he says, is the real source of empowerment. Once we embrace our fears, faults, and uncertainties–once we stop running from and avoiding, and start confronting, painful truths–we can begin to find courage and confidence we desperately seek.

“In life, we have a limited amount of fucks to give. So you must choose your fucks wisely.” Manson brings a much-needed grab-you-by-the-shoulders-and-look-you-in-the-eyes moment of real-talk, filled with entertaining stories and profane, ruthless humor. This manifesto is a refreshing slap in the face for all of us, so that we can start to lead more contented, grounded lives.

Author Blurb

Mark Manson is a star blogger with more than two million readers. He lives in New York City. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is his first book.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

It was a peculiar series of coincidences that brought me to this book with the loud title. My friend SM had read it half a year ago. She thought it was a little over-the-top bold but liked it enough to bring it up in conversation and also to recommend it to her son. At this point, I had no plans of reading it. But the loud title stuck in my head. Then I started seeing it everywhere. You can spot it a mile away. It has a Halloween orange cover and it announces its title with a bold, black font. That got me interested. But still, no plans of reading it. Then I met a fascinating and charming lady on match.com. She’s into business books. Of course, she was reading this book. We talked about the book. She wasn’t the most impressed with it, but impressed enough to keep listening to the audiobook. For me, still no plans of reading it. But I was getting more intrigued. Maybe I could get some brownie points with her if I read it?

Then, last Friday, I was at stopped over at the Calgary Airport. On the way to Denver to collect what I would later find out was the 2nd Prize in the Arts category of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association CIPA EVVY Awards. More on this exciting event and the new friends I made in a future blog. It was very early in the morning still, I had just sent my charming lady-friend an email. Then I ran off to the gate, where they were boarding the Denver flight. Well, I was waiting there for some time while all the ‘cool’ zones were boarding. I was in zone 3, the ‘loser’ zone. So, I was standing there a long time. Right in front of the book store. Right in front of the book. I bought it. How could I not? I think a lot of things in life must be like that. The stimulus has to present itself so many times before something happens.

At 206 pages, the book is a super quick read. The arguments and language are vivid and straightforward. Manson titles his chapters: “You are Not Special,” “Happiness is a Problem,” “Don’t Try,” and other equally provocative names.

The back blurb sums up the book well. Though Mr. Rogers told us we were special, we’re not all that special. We have to know our strengths and weaknesses. And we have to be prepared to put in the effort (i.e. go from failure to failure) to find success.

The one takeaway from the book was Manson’s focus on responsibility. To be successful, argues Manson, we have to take responsibility for our whole life. That means that we have to be responsible for things that we have no control over. His example is a judge. Even though the judge isn’t responsible for the crime, the judge still has to take responsibility for the crime, to make sure the procedure goes through all the appropriate steps:

Judges don’t get to choose their cases. When a case goes to court, the judge assigned to it did not commit the crime, was not a witness to the crime, and was not affected by the crime, but he or she is still responsible for the crime. The judge must then choose the consequences; he or she must identify the metric against which the crime will be measured and make sure that the chosen metric is carried out. We are responsible for experiences that aren’t our fault all the time. This is part of life.

Manson tells the reader how, to get over a bad experience where his girlfriend cheated on him and dumped him, he had to take responsibility for the situation. Taking responsibility means that he had to understand his own role in the relationship and question why he let it go on. When he was able to do this, he was able to grow into a more balanced individual.

The relationship story wasn’t the most interesting part about responsibility to me, though. The most interesting part is how he dovetails that story with one of my favourite quotes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Many years ago, Manson, who started off as a blogger, wrote that quote and attributed it to “a great philosopher.” His followers were quick to call him on that: the quote is actually from Uncle Ben in the movie Spider-Man. Manson tells that story in the book. And then he adds that, although the quote isn’t that profound, if you switch it around, it is the profoundest thing: “With great responsibility comes great power.”

The switched around quote is actually very interesting. What Manson’s saying is that power doesn’t come first. We think it comes first, and then we have to use it responsibly. But that’s a myth. To create power, you have to take responsibility for your dreams, desires, and goals in the first place. Once you accept or take responsibility for all the suffering to get to your dreams, desire, and goals, the power follows.

I applied this to my own situation, and I liked it. A lot of times, people ask me about my book and the playwright competition. I never really know how to answer. I say, “The book’s about theatre and playwriting. I’m trying to get people to reimagine tragedy as a theatre of risk.” Or something like that. What I’m going to say next time when someone asks what I’m doing with the book is: “I’m responsible for the largest playwriting contest in the world for the writing of tragedy. In this competition, we invite dramatists to make risk the fulcrum of the action.” By saying “responsible for,” I hold myself accountable for the success or failure of my enterprise. In all honesty though, the success or failure of my enterprise is only partially dependent on me. Like me buying Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, for my enterprise to be successful, many coincidental events have to occur which I have no control over. But, by taking responsibility for events I have no control over, I am putting skin in the game. And, by putting skin in the game, the odds of success go up. Dramatically. I will take responsibility, and all that responsibility entails.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

“Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction” – Eden

pages 41-49 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

After two chapters on the political and cultic roots of Greek tragedy, A Companion to Tragedy turns to tragedy as literature in chapter three with Kathy Eden’s piece “Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction.” Here’s her author blurb from the beginning of the book:

Kathy Eden is Chavkin Family Professor of English and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She is the author of Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (1986), Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception (1997), and Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the “Adages” of Erasmus (2001).

Aristotle’s Poetics (written between 360-320 BC) has had an immense, twofold contribution to western thought. Not only does it dissect the inner workings of tragedy, it also created an entirely new genre called the philosophy of tragedy. As a guidebook on the history and social function of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of literature. As a groundbreaking work in the new genre of the philosophy of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of philosophy, particularly of aesthetics. It does so because it answers the question: “Why do we find the art of tragedy endearing when the action of tragedy is full of strife and sorrow?”

Because the contributions of the Poetics have been immense, philosophers, creative writers, playwrights, and students of drama continue to read it to this day. Most of the time, they read the Poetics as a standalone work. But it is not a standalone work. Aristotle wrote the Poetics as a rebuttal to his teacher Plato. And it is when readers understand that Plato is the secret unspoken antagonist lurking in the Poetics that the Poetics begin to make sense. Or so this is Eden’s argument in her chapter.

The Origins of Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, did not like mimetic arts or fiction. To Plato, the shortcoming of mimetic arts is that they copy reality, and, as copies, are imperfect and corrupt representations. The psychagogic power of fiction–as false copies of reality–lead the soul astray. Tragedy, as fiction and drama, is a mimetic art. Because it stirs the emotions, it is dangerous, something that Plato bans from his ideal state.

Take Homer’s Iliad as an example. It is a mimetic art of fiction. It represents war–a few days in the Trojan War, to be specific. But if you want to be a general, would you learn about war by reading (or listening) to the Iliad or by finding a general who is actually an expert in warfare? Although the Iliad has stories of generals and their tactics, it is not the real thing. It would be dangerous to read the Iliad and then go off into battle. True knowledge comes from doing. Or philosophizing, which is to understand the causes of why and what something is. Mimetic and fictional arts such as epic and drama are, to Plato, not serious, a form of ‘child’s play’ (paidia).

Plato also values truth because it is consistent. Fiction and the mimetic arts, however, portray change. They portray changes in the tragic agent in the face of misfortune. And dramatic change is based on probability. Change, being based on probability, is not truth. The truth to Plato is unchanging. Art which represents change based on plausibility and probability to Plato is dangerous, an attack on immutable truth.

All these things Plato taught Aristotle. But Aristotle wasn’t so sure. That’s why he wrote the Poetics, argues Eden. The Poetics is Aristotle’s rebuttal of Plato. It is Aristotle’s attempt to rehabilitate fiction and the mimetic arts as something worthwhile and wholesome.

How Aristotle Rehabilitates Tragedy in the Poetics

While agreeing with Plato that drama is an imitating or mimetic art, Aristotle disagrees that it is ‘child’s play’. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not paidia but a ‘serious’ (spoudaia) representation. And, as a serious representation, it is worthwhile. Thus, when we wonder why Aristotle insists that tragedy is a serious representation, to understand that, we have to recall that he is rebuking Plato for calling the mimetic arts ‘child’s play’.

Now, how is tragedy a ‘serious’ representation? Although based on probability (here student and teacher agree), the tragedian ‘must understand the causes of human action in the ethical and intellectual qualities of the agents’. Tragedy is serious in that the tragic poet must convincingly weave together character and intention into the structure of the events. No small feat.

And what about the danger Plato identifies of tragedy influencing the emotions to lead the soul astray? Aristotle agrees with Plato that art has a great power over the emotions. But, instead of rejecting these emotions, Aristotle would rather harness them for a greater good. The purpose of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse pity and fear. Why pity and fear? ‘Pity and fear’ writes Eden, ‘are instrument in judging action . . . In the Poetics (ch. 13) we pity those agents who suffer unfairly, while we fear for those who are like us’. So, because tragedy elicits pity and fear, it performs a function in that it sharpens our ability to judge human action. And, because it sharpens our ability to judge human action, tragedy performs a useful social function. It is thereby rehabilitated. Or so Eden interprets Aristotle.

Risk Theatre and Aristotelian Theory

In my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I’ve developed a bold new 21st century model of tragedy. The feedback from the playwriting world has been fantastic. In the academic world, however, some critics wanted to see some more engagement with the existing body of tragic theory. This blog is a good place to respond. I could have done this in the book as well, but a decision was made at the time of writing to make the book accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The goal of the book is to start a 21st century art movement by reimagining the tragedy as a stage where risk is dramatized. Incorporating theoretical arguments would have detracted from the book’s main drive. So, what are the primary differences between risk theatre and Aristotle?

According to Aristotle, tragedy is ‘an imitation of human action that is serious’. According to risk theatre, tragedy is an imitation of a gambling act. The protagonist is tempted. The protagonist wagers a human asset (honour, the milk of human kindness, faith, the soul, etc.,) for the object of ambition (a crown, the opportunity to revenge, success, etc.,). And then the protagonist goes past the point of no return with a metaphorical roll of the dice.

According to Aristotle, there is a change (metabolē)–usually for the worse–in the hero’s fortune. This change is the result of hamartia, or an error. According to risk theatre, there is also a change, which is, again, usually for the worse. But this change is not due to error. The protagonist’s wager and course of action is reasonable. There is no mistake. The degree of success is high. What upsets the protagonist is an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event that comes out of left field.

According to Aristotle, the elements of the plot follow the rules of probability. There is, as Eden says, a ‘causal connection between events’. According to risk theatre, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability. In risk theatre, the unlikeliest outcome takes place: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill (e.g. Macbeth) or it turns out that the man searching for the patricide happens himself to be the patricide (e.g. Oedipus). Risk theatre can generate the unlikeliest outcome because of a truism with risk: the more risk we take on, the more we expose ourselves to unintended consequences. In other words, risk theatre is exciting because, in taking on too much risk, the protagonist breaks the causal connection between events.

According to Aristotle, the emotions tragedy generates are pity and fear. According to risk theatre, the emotions tragedy generates are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero’s best-laid plans will be upset by some black swan event.

According to Aristotle (and Eden’s interpretation of Aristotle), tragedy ‘sharpens its audience’s ability to judge human action’. According to risk theatre, tragedy sharpens its audience’s realization that low-probability, high-consequence events can defy the best-laid plans to shape life in unexpected ways. Tragedy, by dramatizing risk acts, warns us not to bite off more than we can chew. In this modern world where we go forwards in ever larger leaps and bounds, do we not need a risk theatre model of tragedy more than ever? By watching a cascading series of unintended consequences play out on stage, perhaps we will learn the wisdom of the old folk adage: ‘Keep some powder dry’.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

“Tragedy and Dionysus” – Seaford

pages 25-38 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Two articles into A Companion to Tragedy and both argue for a ritual basis for ancient Greek tragedy. Surprising. You’d think a reference work such as this would provide more balance. The ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’ school of thought gets short shrift in this edition. Although Dionysus is the patron god of tragedy, so few tragedies feature Dionysus that a school of thought has arisen declaring that ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’. In this article, Seaford argues that, although most of the stories from Athenian tragedy do not feature Dionysus, the art of tragedy is ‘Dionysiac’. Seaford frames the central question in this way: ‘Can it make sense to call a narrative or drama Dionysiac if Dionysus himself plays no part in it?’

Seaford argues that Athenian tragedy is Dionysiac, as drama originated from the cult of Dionysus. Specifically, drama came into being when the chorus leader broke apart from the chorus to address the chorus. When the chorus responded in a refrain, drama was born. In addition, even if many of the surviving plays don’t feature Dionysus, the tragedy festival itself indubitably belonged to the cult of Dionysus: at the beginning of the festival, the image of Dionysus was brought into the city and a ‘sacred marriage’ took place between the image and the wife of a magistrate called the ‘King Archon’.

Another prominent ritual in Dionysus’ cult is, of course, booze! Seaford postulates that the social elements of drinking naturally led to gatherings, festivals, and other occasions fertile for the development of drama. From the Anthesteria, a minor and ancient spring festival of Dionysus sprang the City or the Great Dionysia, the major festival where tragedy took centre-stage (this is where Oedipus rexThe Oresteia, Hippolytus, and other plays were first performed). According to Seaford, the Great Dionysia arose in the 6th century BC to serve a political end:

Suffice it here to say that whereas the ancient festival of the Anthesteria had long centered around a key moment in the agricultural year, the opening of the new wine, the new Dionysia was largely designed to serve a political end: the display of the strength and magnificence of Athens–to itself and to others. We should also note that the organization and coordination of the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money: the universal power of money, deployed at a single center or even by a single individual, is especially good at coordinating a complex new initiative, and tends in our period to replace the less flexible power of barter and traditional observance.

Now, this is interesting: “the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money.” Am I hearing this right–money had something to do with the birth of tragedy? In my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I argued that tragedy arose as a backlash to the introduction of money in Attica (or Athens, as I call it). Money made it possible to buy, sell, and exchange human life and values like bacon bits and deer skins at the market. As such, money degraded life and human value by turning it into an object of financial exchange. A counter-monetary spirit arose. It sought form and expression and found its voice in the new art form of tragedy. In the risk theatre interpretation, tragedy rails against money by routing exchanges involving life and human value through the shadow market instead of the conventional money market. For example, one can buy a title or a degree with money in the conventional market. In tragedy, however, the use of money is strictly forbidden. To acquire a title in tragedy–such as Solness acquiring the title ‘master builder’ in Ibsen’s play–one has to pay in flesh and blood. Solness, to become master builder, pays with his happiness, and the happiness of those around him. Happiness for becoming the master builder: this is the sort of existential transaction that takes place in what I call the ‘shadow market’.

By routing exchanges through the shadow market, tragedy railed against the monetization of life and human value. In this way, tragedy shows how some things cannot be brought with money. In this way, tragedy revolts against the monetization of life and value. Now, in my book, I turned the story of how tragedy arose as a counter-monetary art into a myth. I didn’t feel that my position could be academically defended, so I mythologized the process by weaving it into existing stories about Croesus (the tragic ruler of Lydia who invented money), Solon (one of the wise men), and the tale of Diomedes and Glaucus’ meeting (out of Homer’s Iliad). But from what Seaford is saying, it seems that this strange and bold view that tragedy arose as a reaction to the invention of money could find an academic footing. This to me is most interesting. At the time I wrote The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I would not have, in my wildest dreams, thought this possible.

But, it is possible. I checked the bibliography to Seaford’s article, and he does have a full length book on this topic: Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge University Press). It wasn’t available at my local public library (they can’t even get it interlibrary loan!). But I had to read it, and luckily there was a used copy available on Amazon. What a find! I’ll be reading and reviewing this book very soon, here’s the blurb:

How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage. By transforming social relations, monetization contributed to the concepts of the universe as an impersonal system (fundamental to Presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods, as found in tragedy.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy – Wong

378 pages, Friesen Press, 2019

Attempt at a Self-Criticism (or, an autoreview)

1

Everyone knows the word ‘autobiography’, from the Greek prefix autos ‘self’ and biography, also  a combination of Greek terms: bios ‘life’ and graphia ‘writing’. Less well known is the term ‘autoreview’ or a review of one’s own book. Some would deny it is even a term. But the idea of an autoreview would be most interesting. Should authors review and rate their own works? Could this be the rise of a new genre, or would the autoreview lack critical distance?

On Goodreads, a site for book reviews, there’s an author discussion group devoted to the autoreview idea. It’s called ‘Should You Rate Your Own Book‘. The consensus overwhelmingly discourages the autoreview. For example, here’s what Chris had to say on the thread:

The other day I downloaded an indie author’s book with intent to read and review, because it sounded really interesting. When I visited their page here on goodreads and saw that they’d rated & reviewed it themselves, I deleted it on the spot. It just seemed tacky to me. I could no longer take the author seriously.

And here’s what Christine had to say:

It really speaks to the unprofessional attitude of the author and is usually associated with ego-driven, self-published authors. It may be permitted here on GR, but readers do not appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, there is at least one great autoreview that I know of. Nietzsche published his youthful masterpiece The Birth of Tragedy in 1872 when he was twenty-seven. In the 1886 edition, he added a new preface, called ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’. This new preface was an autoreview of his own work. He gave his book no quarter, writing:

To say it once more: today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof, a book for initiates, ‘music’ for those dedicated to music, those who are closely related to begin with on the basis of common and rare aesthetic experiences, ‘music’ meant as a sign of recognition for close relatives in artibus–an arrogant and rhapsodic book that sought to exclude the right from the beginning the profanum vulgus of ‘the educated’ even more than ‘the mass’ or ‘folk’. (trans. Kaufmann)

Today, his autoreview or ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is considered one of his finest and most perceptive pieces of writing, not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but of his entire corpus. Not bad for an autoreview.

While not technically an autoreview, there is also Stephen King’s On Writing, that I reviewed here. Using many examples from his own works, King gives examples of how to write well. Since  he is using examples from his own books to teach others how to write well, his book can be seen as a ‘pat on the back’. King’s book, like Nietzsche’s ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is also regarded highly and considered to be quite perceptive. I find that it is one of the best books on writing available. That King uses examples from his own work is a plus, a fascinating insight he gives fans into the mechanics of his art. A look into the master’s workshop, if you will.

So, if writers can resist the urge to give themselves five stars and full accolades and write perceptively of their writing, the genre of autoreview could be viable, even something very interesting and useful for writers and readers (as an aside, King recommends to cut out every ‘very’ from the text). After all, the task of writers is to write. As professionals who write, we should be able to write on our own work. Composers, after all, are able to review their own works (Beethoven considered the Missa Solemnis to be his finest statement). Artists are also able to do the same (see for example, the fascinating book Rodin on Art and Artists, where Rodin compares himself to the old masters). Interesting writers ought to be able to write interesting comments on their own work, and from a perspective unavailable to other commentators. I find the scarcity of the autoreview surprising. Let me do my part to address this by commenting on my own book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

2

A primary argument in the book is that life has become too monetized. We express ourselves in terms of ‘net worth’. Life insurance policies quantify life in dollar terms. Power is measured in terms of capital or stock holdings. To rehabilitate the monetization of life, an art had to rise up in revolt to show how the things that mean the most cannot be purchased. That art was tragedy. Tragedy taught us that wagers are involved in obtaining our most dear desires. But not money wagers. Existential wagers such as dignity for the American dream. Or compassion for a crown. These sort of wagers, according to risk theatre, take place in the shadow market, an alternate exchange to the stock markets and bourses of the world. To rehabilitate life, tragedy countermonetizes the mechanics of exchange. The fault of this argument: in revolting against money, it talks too much about money. It is as though money had already poisoned my mind, and the book represented my last ditch attempt to rehabilitate myself.

The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as Marxism is suspicious. Marx, for someone who is against capital, sure spends a long time talking about capital. Too much time, in fact. To him, capital is magic. With enough capital, you can enslave the working classes and rule the earth. I think that Marx is, in some way, a closet capitalist.

The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Many of these bands proclaimed that they were liberated from the Christian shackles. Bands like Venom, Black Sabbath, and Bathory. But in their lyrics, they sang of scaling the golden wall of heaven, serving the dark lord, or fighting the angels. In fact, they talked more about religion than someone would, if they were truly liberated from religion. I always thought that, in some way, they were closet Christians: they were way too opposed to Christianity to be liberated from it.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is suspicious in the same way as Marx is suspicious and 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Just as Marx talks too much about capital and 80s metal bands spent too much energy claiming they had gone beyond Christianity, my questionable book spends too much energy countermonetizing human exchange. The book betrays a key foible within my own schema. We all monetize existence (for example, if we work for $10 and hour, we are exchanging existence for greenback dollars). But, what the book reveals is that this monetization in my own schema was more so than the average individual. It had reached such a pitch that I had to spend thirteen years writing a book to overcome it. The writer, says the book, has monetized his existence through and through. “He tries,” says the book, “to go against himself, but all is lost.”

3

The book has a dogmatic and argumentative style. Very formulaic. Repetitive. For example, when it introduces new terms describing the structure of risk theatre, it does so with curt and matter-of-fact efficiency. It brings up the term. Then it provides a number of examples. Many examples.  But the description of these examples is at a bare minimum. There is hardly any comments on the significance of these examples to the author. The author is distant, far from the text. But for many readers, the most interesting part of the text will be the author’s personality. It is a dry book. It is as though the author distances himself from the text to give the text more authority. But, in doing so, it betrays a certain lack of self-confidence in the author. The book carries the marks of an author who wants to be believed, believes himself, but has a problem believing that others can believe him.

4

Now, I hope that I can be forgiven if I don’t spend this whole autoreview panning myself. Or, oops, I meant my book. I confuse the two sometimes. Whether the idea of risk theatre catches on, nobody can say. I’ve gone all-in that it will. The initial reviews have been good. Better than good. Great. But many others have gone all-in and have lost all. You see it at the casinos every day. But there is one advantage of the book that sticks, no matter if the book is successful or not. Only by writing a book can you experience the feeling of reading your own book. Reading your own book is that feeling, the feelings amongst. Out of a thousand people, maybe five or six have have experienced its highs and lows.

The lows come when I spot a line that doesn’t flow. Here’s one: “Ferdinand wants to become a great figure of state like his father, the peerless Duke of Alba.” The word “great” should have been omitted. “Figure of state” already conveys that the Duke of Alba is great. And, if anyone missed that the Duke of Alba was great, he is also described in the same sentence as being “peerless.” Too many descriptive words mar the sentence. Reading it pains me. But it is a most exquisite pain, as it arose out of my own weakness as a writer.

The joys of reading your own book are many. The book contains an archaeological trove of memories that are unearthed by the act of reading. Here’s a line from the book “Fools go for a home run when they can get by with a hit.” That was written one night I was listening to Springsteen’s song “My best was never good enough.” His lyric fell straight into the book. Athaliah’s “secret heart” came from Feist’s song “Secret Heart.” Rich’s “obsequious and arrogant” soul came from Motorhead’s song “Orgasmatron.” There are many more, and not only music. Reading the book brings back a flood of memories, bits of life that have happened during the thirteen years of writing, bits of life that would have been forgotten forever. An author reads his book like no other reader. To have experienced reading your own book is a bucket list item.

5

Truly fascinating is a comparison of what the author believes readers should take away from the work, and what readers actually take away from the work. The most celebrated example is Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Although written as a diatribe against capitalism, it propelled greed to new heights. Wall Street traders adopted the principal character, Gordon Gekko, as their new saint, and created a new code of conduct around his words, ‘Greed is good’. Before the movie, traders did not wear contrast collars (e.g. white collar on a blue shirt) or suspenders. But, the villain so impressed Wall Street that it gave Wall Street a new dress code: contrast collars and suspenders. The movie became a cultural phenomenon. Everyone wanted to emulate Gordon Gekko, patron saint of capitalism. Somewhere Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas hung their heads in their hands.

While not on a level even approaching Wall Street, there is a slight divergence between my hopes (as an author) and what readers have reported. To me, the most devastating realization the book offers is that the art of tragedy is actually a thermodynamic process governed by the Second Law of thermodynamics. To quote one of my favourite passages:

Tragedy may be viewed of as a fiery engine that consumes ambition, purpose, and desire. Into the maw of its furnace, heroes are cast like lumps of flashing coal. They set afire tragedy’s engine for a moment and then are no more. Tragedy, as if it were a closed thermodynamic system, ends up in a lower state of potential, whether by the death of a Tamburlaine or a Caesar, the exile of Oedipus, or the loss of a Joan of Arc or a master builder. Fuel, once spent, loses its potential; likewise, the energy of human will, purpose, endeavour, and the fire of the human imagination go cold. Time, in tragedy, measures the rising entropy, or disorder, of the dramatic world. By an immutable law, as it were, as the minutes give way to hours, and the hours give way to days, kingdoms collapse, heroes perish, and order gives way to disorder.

Thus far, reviewers have focussed on the main theme: risk. No reviewer has yet commented on the final chapters of the book–the strongest chapters, in my opinion. Why was that? To me, this is a great mystery. If a reviewer would be able to comment on these last chapters, I would be most grateful. Here’s what reviewers have written up to today:

“The author’s passion for his subject comes across in nearly every statement . . . An ambitious, though-provoking critique of tragedy in the 21st century.”—Kirkus Reviews

*****I have just finished reading Edwin Wong’s ‘The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy’ and, although I was initially skeptical of his bold claim of an original theory of tragic drama, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading about this classicist’s main belief. As I turned the pages his theory grew on me and I found myself both convinced and gripped by this new perspective on tragedy. His low- probability, high-consequence outcome theory does indeed resonate with the risk takers of today and I thoroughly recommend this scholarly work to anyone interested in both theatrical and real life tragedy based on risk. As the author himself writes, ‘A working model of tragedy that is both original and rooted in tradition.’

A remarkable book in every way. A must for every serious dramatist to read, ponder over and act upon.

David Duncan – Goodreads

*****IF YOU EVER PLAN TO WRITE, READ OR ACT IN A TRAGEDY THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU! The author writes that “after two and a half millennia, tragedy is still a term in search of a definition.” He interestingly describes how each age creates its own model. The ancients “assigned the unexpected outcome to the will of the gods” while the Elizabethans established “the first great age of tragedy in the era of probability”. Mr. Wong provides a model for our highly technological time where “the possibility of doing great good or evil has increased” where “the unexpected always prevails”. He makes a very convincing case that the study of tragedy enhances our understanding of life and its value. As did I, readers of this highly stimulating book will undoubtedly ask themselves what they would be willing to wager in their lives and for what. As an actor who has performed in tragedies, and a playwright who has attempted to write one, I know that this is a book to which I will often refer.
PS: Be sure to read the footnotes which are chock full of good stuff from Wild Bill Hickok anecdotes to the link between tragedy and goats! Tragedy will rise again!!

Alan Thurston – Barnes & Noble

*****INNOVATIVE, ENGAGING, & VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING! Wong’s insightful and excellently-sourced treatise on “risk theatre” reframes our understanding of tragedy in terms of how hero’s (often flawed) analysis of risks and rewards prompts them to make decisions that set actions in motion leading to their tragic outcomes. He organizes information so effectively, providing relevant examples from classical and modern drama. You are never bogged down in the philosophy- rather, you are encouraged to expand how this new framework will inspire NEW content. Wong is hopeful in his desire to push the bounds of what modern tragedy will look like, and readers of this text and playwrights inspired by it are better for it!

Emily McClain – Amazon

****Anyone who has taken a story writing or screenplay class in America has likely come across The Hero With a Thousand Faces at some point. If not the exact book itself, then another author has often either borrowed quotes or elements of Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Some teachers consider it inseparable to modern cinema and media; it’s just about everywhere.

But if Campbell’s ideas cause resistance—which is becoming a trend nowadays, in my personal experience at least—Wong’s smooth model may be a wiser introduction. Campbell’s form may get learners lost in the message, the process, and the terminology for understanding a work. Wong’s methodology encourages a focused structure for a character’s thought processes throughout the story. It’s through establishing their personal risks and the consequences of their actions that there can be a real momentum. For me, and I’m sure others, that is the best-if-felt heart. Makes a story beat and dance with life.

Sure, Wong arranges his processes for the tragedy genre in mind, so there are certain constraints that may not apply. Like a fateful mishap tripping the heroes’ supposed victory and leading to a death may not be appropriate for a children’s book. But I believe most of Wong’s proposed techniques can be used for anything that has a story. I’d recommend this for anyone who wants to write or needs a refresher on character building, not just in the theater world too. Useful framing device if you’re feeling stuck.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a nimble read. If I were to criticize the writing, it’s close to a dry textbook with cohesive examples. Depending on the type of reader you are, that might mean a fascinating analysis or a snore fest. Several popular Shakespearean examples too, so that might not be up your alley to reread if you’ve already read so much of Shakespeare.

For me though, I enjoyed the overall experience and I learned something. If I lived in LA, I’d be up to seeing it in person too. Maybe someday, eh?

I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.

Cavak – Goodreads

*****VERY INTERESTING READ Interesting review of risk as related to everyday life.

Gordjohn – Amazon

*****AN IMPORTANT WORK ON A FASCINATING TOPIC I loved this book! The author is a fan of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and even quotes one of my favorite passages from LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, where James O’Neill laments sacrificing his career for money, and wonders what is was he wanted.
The book itself is an entertaining and insightful reimagining of a model for modern tragedy – Risk Theater – into today’s world of technology and global risk. I think this is an interesting premise, as the modern tragic heroes are not kings but hedge fund managers and tech moguls, playing games of chance that risk the lives of people around the world.
The author has a deep knowledge of the classics which he utilizes to build a guidebook for how playwrights can use the concepts of existential gambles, unexpected events, and “the price you pay.” I particularly liked his theory or counter monetization, a welcome answer to a society that too often worships money at the expense of deeper values, and how that relates to a modern way of looking at tragedy.
The Risk Theater Model of Tragedy offers a fresh perspective not only of the classical theater but more importantly how we can restructure the old paradigms in a way that speaks to modern audiences. It’s an important work, and will hopefully inspire playwrights everywhere to reimagine classical themes in a dynamic and exciting ways.

Mike – Amazon

*****A POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS As an emerging playwright challenged to write high stakes drama that often has tragic consequences, I am grateful to Edwin Wong for his book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. It gives me a powerful tool and template to write modern tragedy. It belongs on every playwright’s desk.

Marc Littman, playwright – Amazon

*****Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Stunning! I had to re-read the “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy” by Edwin Wong. It was too good. It is a delight to recreate the possible scenarios exposed by the author in a very original thematic treatment of theater that invites further discussion and analysis. It is also a compendium of high academic and cogent discourse, a complete high level ‘theory’ on how to model and perform stage plays. He couples it with almost a ‘how-to’ reference guide on how to produce compelling theater by presenting the reader with an exhaustive analysis and classification of different facets of prior stage productions, from the Greek classics to modern times’ productions. The book is chock’full of insights and intriguing revelations. Edwin draws a narrative comparing and contrasting different elements of risk and relates these to modern audiences. The author’s vast breadth of knowledge, drawing upon his years of experience as a theatre critic and forward thinker in the performing arts world has crafted together a robust tome with incredible completeness and complexity – which should be on every aspiring playwright’s desk. I can anticipate a wave of theater academics referencing this book in their class syllabus.

Conchita – Amazon

*****If you haven’t read a scholarly book in a while and you feel that your brains are getting rusty, I recommend THE RISK MODEL of TRAGEDY. It manages to be highbrow but lucid, free of the cant of so much modern critical theory. The theatrical genre of tragedy was deemed to be needed along with comedy in ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and should be re-invented in the USA today, if we truly want to be great. What are we afraid of?

Daniel Curzon – Barnes & Noble

“A fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times . . . A nearly bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.”—Editor, Friesen Press

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am doing Melpomene’s work by writing this autoreview.

“Greek Tragedy and Ritual” – Sourvinou-Inwood

pages 7-24 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell, 2009

While moderns enjoy tragedies such as Euripides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone as drama, the ancients looked at tragedy as ritual. In other words, by simulating interactions between mortals and immortals on the tragic stage, the ancients constructed religious dogma. Today, bishops and popes construct religious dogma in councils and chairs. Yesterday, the ancients constructed religious dogma on the stage of the tragic theatre. Lack of knowledge of this distinction makes moderns susceptible to misinterpreting ancient tragedy. Or so Sourvinou-Inwood argues.

Sourvinou-Inwood presents evidence of the ritual basis behind Greek tragedy. Tragedy consists of a series of prayers and rites. Oracles play a central role. Celebrations to gods outside theatre often involve choral activity; the chorus forms a central fixture on the tragic stage. As the City Dionysia began (the festival where tragedies were staged), the statue of Dionysus was brought from the sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus to Athens. And so on. The evidence Sourvinou-Inwood presents is incontrovertible. Greek tragedy has a ritual foundation.

Next, Sourvinou-Inwood presents cases where the modern lack of knowledge of the ritual basis of ancient theatre has created misunderstandings. With an understanding of the ritual basis of tragedy, we should not, for example, in Sophocles’ Antigone take Antigone’s side. Antigone’s claim that it is her religious duty to bury her brother (a traitor in the civil war) is not backed by any extant religious law. We should, however, take Creon’s side, who passes a law forbidding burial to traitors (one of whom is Antigone’s brother) in the interests of national unity. In her ritual reading of this tragedy, it is only when Creon keeps Polyneices’ corpse in the upper world too long that the cosmic order is upset, as, according to Greek religion, the corpse really belongs in the nether world. Sophocles’ Antigone explores, therefore, not the collision between two equally justified ethical forces (as Hegel and other moderns saw it), but how the religion of the Greek city-state may sometimes get it wrong. In this reading, Creon does it all right, yet, because the will of the gods is beyond human comprehension, gets it all wrong. The purpose of tragedy, in Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, is to explore religion. Greek tragedies are not timeless, but for a specific time and purpose.

If fifth century tragedy is a  ritual of Greek religion, nobody gave Plato and Aristotle the memo. Both of them discuss tragedy extensively, and they don’t consider tragedy to be part of their liturgy. Instead of religion, they focus on the emotional affect tragedy has on audiences. For Plato, tragedy corrupts the audience’s emotions because it is a cheap imitation of life. If–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–tragedy is a sacred rite, it is unclear why Plato would view it as an imitation or mimesis of life. Aristotle, of course, came to a different conclusion than his teacher. To him, tragedy rehabilitates the emotions through catharsis, a purging of pity and fear through pity and fear. But he was of the same mind as his teacher insofar as tragedy is drama, not ritual.

Mind you, Aristotle (fourth century BC) comes a little late to the game, after the heyday of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the so-called ‘big three’. Plato, however, was a contemporary of Sophocles and Euripides. One way to reconcile the discrepancy between Sourvinou-Inwood and Plato/Aristotle would be to argue that tragedy began as ritual (in the sixth century), and then gradually became secularized until the fourth century, where it was completely secular and had “nothing to do with Dionysus.”

My beef with the Sourvinou-Inwood reading is that I believe that Greek tragedy is for all time. Her ritual interpretation reduces tragedy to be a work for one time: tragedy, to her, is timely, not timeless. And by the way, I don’t care if I’m wrong. Gosh darn it, at least by arguing for tragedy’s timelessness, I’m arguing from the perspective of art, arguing from the good guy side! Here are my objections to the ritual interpretation of tragedy. But before beginning, I don’t deny there are ritual aspects behind Greek tragedy. Just like there are religious rituals and artifacts to Easter and Christmas celebrations. But to me, Greek tragedy ought to be interpreted as art before it is interpreted as ritual. Why should the interpretation of one audience in the fifth century (who may have understood tragedy to be ritual) be privileged over all the interpretations of subsequent audiences (who see tragedies as drama)?

First criticism: the ritual interpretation of tragedy results in less inspiring and somewhat limited conclusions. If I’m going to accept any interpretation of tragedy, I want it to make my experience more, not less! Take the discussion of Antigone. In Hegel’s interpretation of the work as drama, Creon and Antigone are ethical equals on a collision path. She represents the right of religion in wanting to bury her brother. He represents the civic right of the polis in denying burial to traitors, one of whom is Antigone’s brother. Anouilh, in his 1944 adaptation of Antigone, also recognized that the genius of the play lies in how both Creon and Antigone have an ethical foundation: in the same audience, the Nazis applauded the portrayal of Creon (with whom they sided) while the Free French applauded the portrayal of Antigone (with whom they sided). That would have been an interesting show to see! Just imagine the tension in the air… In Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, however, Antigone is wrong and Creon is (mostly) right. Part of the play’s greatness is lost. Am I to believe that Sophocles’ audience missed this dramatic masterstroke which subsequent audiences grasped with ease? The ritual interpretation would be like arguing that the original audience of, say Bach’s Mass in B minor couldn’t hear the same genius modern and secular ears can hear because they were too focused on the religious aspects of Bach’s music. I don’t buy this. The inner core of a work’s genius should be available to keen interpreters of every generation.

Part of Sourvinou-Inwood’s argument is that, while there isn’t ethical parity between Antigone and Creon, her interpretation of the play is actually richer because it focuses on the unpredictability of the divine in the face of mortal understanding: although Creon plays his hand (mostly) correctly, he still goes down in the end. I agree that how the gods engineer unexpected outcomes is part of the play’s appeal (Euripides says so in the coda to many of his plays). This can be part of a ‘dramatic’ interpretation of the play. The ‘dramatic’ reading can also include the ethical parity between Antigone and Creon. But the ritual interpretation cannot accept the ethical parity. In this respect, it is limiting. In interpretation, ambiguity is often fruitful.

Second criticism: Sourvinou-Inwood argues that the Greeks conducted religious ritual on the stage of tragedy because Greek religion “did not have a canonical body of belief, no divine revelation nor scriptural texts.” Are myths not canonical bodies of belief? Did competing cities–the Hera cult in Argos, the Athena cult in Athens, and the Dionysus cult in Thebes–not compete for the right to shape canon in much the same as Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians claim primacy for their point of views? Do oracles, visions of Pan and his satyrs in the woods, and the taking of auspices not count as divine revelation? And what were the works of Homer and Hesiod if not scriptural text? Even setting this aside, why should Christianity be compared to Greek tragedy? Okay, so Christianity has a canonical body of belief, divine revelation, and scriptural texts. So would the conclusion be that Christianity does not need to dramatize religion on stage? If that was the case, then why do we have plays such as Hochhuth’s The Deputy or oratorios such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (which I saw a week and a half ago conducted by Butterfield at UVic)? Whether or not Greek religion had a canonical body of belief should not have any bearing on their need to dramatize religion on the stage.

Third criticism: I would have liked to have read more about whether Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were aware that their works for one time, and not for all time. Some of their texts survive down to the present day, so someone would have been recording them, writing them down. And if they were disposable works, works for one time–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–why would there be need to preserve them?

All in all, Sourvinou-Inwood is right in positing a ritual basis of tragedy. But perhaps her argument would have been stronger had she not pressed her case so far? Drama and ritual is perhaps more a both / and rather than an either / or proposition.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age – McLeod

228 pages, Douglas & McIntyre, 2018

Well, I’ve joined a book club, would you believe it? Last December, the Spirit of Christmas inspired me, and I went through my contact list to reach out to long lost acquaintances. HT was on the list–we went to high school together–and, by a good stroke of fortune, still has the same phone number. She invited me to join her book club, so here I am! Mamaskatch is the second book I’ve read with the club (the first was Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See). The club has five members, and how it works is that each time we meet, a different member proposes three books. The other members vote, and we read and discuss the most popular book.

I’ve been gaining valuable self-awareness since joining the book club. What sort of awareness, you ask? Well, it seems that I like to read weird books. Or books that other people consider weird, as in “Don’t talk to that freak–look at what he’s reading!” How do I know this? Well, since I’ve been reading the book club books, everyone approaches me to make small talk. If I’m at the bus stop, they make small talk. If I’m in a restaurant, they make small talk. If I’m at the coffee shop, they make small talk. This has shocked me, since no one ever approaches me to make small talk if I’m reading books from my personal selections. Reading book club books has been a most enlightening experience.

Mamaskatch Book Blurb

Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the aromas of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.

However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes, witnessing violence, caring for his siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own identity and sexuality.

Beautifully written honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch–named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared–is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.

Author Blurb

Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before deciding to pursue writing, he was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French literature and eduction from the University of British Columbia. He lives in Sooke, BC, and is working on a second memoir to follow Mamaskatch. In the spring of 2018, he was accepted into the Banff Writing Studio to advance his first work of fiction.

Mamaskatch

This book may be a tough read for some folks. The scope of abuse, shame, and neglect McLeod suffers from an early age is mind blowing. For folks who haven’t experienced this sort of life, it’s quite hard to imagine how seemingly everyone he encounters is some sort of predator.

The most profound part of the book for me is how McLeod looks at his own upbringing with a look of distance. There’s many opportunities for him to point fingers and distribute blame. But he resists. He describes his experiences from an almost objective, arm’s length perspective. He lets readers come to their own conclusions. For that I am grateful. For me, that is McLeod’s genius and gift as a writer. To have maintained an arm’s length separation from pain and trauma must have been difficult. To blame would have been all too easy. But that would have made for a much less satisfying read. Letting readers decide helps readers engage more deeply with his story, one for the ages.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Nibelungenlied – Anonymous (trans. A. T. Hatto)

404 pages, Penguin, 1969

Book Blurb

‘No warrior will ever do a darker deed’

Written by an unknown author in the twelfth century, this powerful story of murder and revenge reaches back to the earliest epochs of German antiquity, transforming centuries-old versions of the tale into a poetic masterpiece. Siegfried, a great prince of the Netherlands, wins the hand of the beautiful princess Kriemhild of Burgundy, by aiding her brother Gunther in his struggle to possess a powerful Icelandic Queen. But the two women quarrel, and Siegfried is ultimately destroyed by those he trusts most. Comparable in scope to the Iliad, this skilfully crafted work is one of the greatest of epic poems–the principal version of the heroic legends used by Richard Wagner in The Ring.

Author Blurb

The ‘Last Poet’ (the one who put together the earlier lays into the current epic) is anonymous, so little to say here. There is a short chapter “The Status of the Poet” which speculates on who this ‘Last Poet’ was. The conclusion is that:

The safest guess is, then, that the strange genius who wrote the Nibelungenlied was a semi-clerical poet by profession, technically of the order of vagi or wayfarers, though probably sedentary for most of his life.

There you have it!

The Nibelungenlied

With words like ‘fillet’, ‘wimple’, and ‘bohort’, the Nibelungenlied is a vocabulary enhancing extravaganza. Excellent for Scrabble players out there everywhere! By the way, a fillet is a band worn by unmarried women around the head, a wimple is a cloth headdress worn by married women (still worn by nuns today), and a bohort is a jousting tournament with dulled lances.

In the Nibelungenlied, castles resound with the thunderous and joyous sounds of clashing lances and shields. The men busy themselves in feasts. The women busy themselves in making fancy, gem studded clothing. Men and women are also somewhat sequestered from one another, so they look forward to special occasions when they can intermingle (e.g. when dignitaries come into town) and do the things that men and women do.

In addition to feasting, the men can often be found planning expeditions to neighbouring kingdoms. When planning an expedition, their primary concern appears to be to arrive well-dressed. To be GQ ready, they enlist the women to manufacture gem and ruby studded clothing. Clothing seems to be very important in this era. When Kriemhild bribes the messengers, for example, she offers them, of all things, splendid clothes:

‘Now do exactly as I ask’, she said to the two messengers, ‘Tell them my message at home and you will earn a great reward. If you do this, I shall make you very rich and give you splendid clothes.

And then when they do go on expeditions, there’s always some noble margrave (a sort of count) who can take in a thousand men on no notice:

‘But this is out of the question’ replied Dancwart. ‘Where would you find all the food, bread, and wine which you would need tonight for so many warriors?’

‘No more of that if you please!’ answered Rüdiger when he heard it. ‘My dear lords, do not refuse me. I could feed you for a fortnight together with all your following, since King Etzel has never laid me under any contribution.

What Was Twelfth Century Life Actually Like?

There’s a homeless shelter called ‘Our Place’. From the sound of the sirens and the look of the folks outside, it’s anything but ‘Our Place’. There’s a senior centre called ‘We Care’. From the news reports of all the senior abuse, it’s crossed my mind that ‘We Care’ really means ‘We don’t care’. There’s a law firm called ‘Integrity Law’. Why would they call themselves ‘Integrity Law’ unless they wanted to draw attention away from dealings that lack integrity? There’s company called ‘Coast Environmental’. Sounds nice, no?–the combination of ‘coast’ and ‘environmental’ conjures up images of dolphins and porpoises. Of course they deal with sewage.

How does these examples help us reconstruct twelfth century life? Like ‘Our Place’, a lot of the descriptions in the Nibelungenlied appear to be wishful thinking. The gifts of gold and precious stones that hosts would heap into shields and dispense to guests is a sign that gold and precious stones were lacking. That kings never tax vassals is a sign that vassals were weighed down by the burden of heavy contributions. That knights would wear and ruin their best clothes in bohorts is not a sign of prodigious consumption but that clothes were in short supply. That margraves would stock excess food in their strongholds–enough to feed wandering armies for weeks–is not a sign of well-stocked pantries, but rather a sign that malnutrition and starvation were endemic.

The twelfth century must have been a chaotic era rife with uncertainty and change for the worse. The one redeeming feature is the fantasyland of the Nibelungenlied where food and drink are plentiful, kings do not need to tax retainers, rich veins yield up gold and silver to all comers, and clothing is so readily available that you wear your best shirt when you enter the jousting tournament.

The Nibelungenlied as Tragedy

Since this is a German epic, it seems fitting that the one truly tragic episode goes together with Hegel’s German interpretation of tragedy like bread and butter. The one truly tragic episode?–that would be that of the Margrave Rüdiger, lord of Pöchlarn. When King Etzel sent him to woo Kriemhild, Rüdiger swears an oath to Kriemhild that he would “make amends to her for any wrong that should befall her.” This is Rüdiger’s first mistake, as a powerful knight, Hagen, had wronged Kriemhild by killing her husband Siegfried when Siegfried knelt down by the river to drink. His second mistake occurs years later, when, after Kriemhild and Etzel have married, he escorts the Burgundians into Hungary. Although she herself is a Burgundian, the Burgundians have done Kriemhild a great harm, because their greatest knight Hagen sunk the spear into Siegfried’s heart and their weak king, Gunther, allowed it to happen. When Rüdiger escorts the Burgundians into Hungary, he guarantees them safe passage as their host. This is his second mistake, as when Kriemhild revenges the murder of Siegfried, she will call upon the hapless Rüdiger to slay his Burgundian guests.

No, what did Hegel say about tragedy? Hegel defined tragedy as a collision of moral forces, both of which are grounded in the just and right. And that is exactly what happens with Rüdiger when he realizes he cannot fulfil both his oath to Kriemhild and his obligations to the Burgundians as their host:

[Kriemhild speaking] ‘What have we done to deserve that you should add to my sufferings and the King’s?’ she asked with tears in her eyes. ‘Now you have told us all along, noble Rüdiger that you would hazard your position and your life for us, and I have heard many warriors acclaim you as far and away the best. And so, illustrious knight, I remind you of the aid you swore to bear me when you urged me to marry Etzel, saying you would serve me till one or the other of us died.–Poor woman, I was never in such need of that aid as now’.

‘There is no denying it, noble lady, that I swore to risk my life and position for you: but that I would lose my soul I never swore!–Remember it was I who brough those highborn kings [i.e. the Burgundians] to the festival here’.

‘Think, Rüdiger, of your great debt of loyalty and constancy’, she said, ‘and of the oaths, too, by which you swore you would always avenge my wrongs and any harm that befell me’.

‘I have never refused you anything’, answered the Margrave. And now mighty Etzel began to entreat him, and both he and his queen knelt before their liegeman. The noble Margrave stood there in despair. ‘Alas’, cried that most faithful knight from the depths of his anguish, ‘that I have lived to know this, Godforsaken man that I am! I must sacrifice all the esteem, the integrity, and breeding that by the grace of God were mine! Ah, God in Heaven, that death does not avert this from me! Whichever course I leave in order to follow the other, I shall have acted basely and infamously–and if I refrain from both, they will all upbraid me! May He that summoned me to life afford me counsel!’

This is textbook Hegelian tragedy: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And, as a German critic, Hegel would have been well-acquainted with the Nibelungenlied, the German epic. Is it a wonder then, that the national character of the Germans, with their fascination of oaths at cross-purposes, would have led to a Hegel’s formulation of tragedy?

And is a wonder then, that, having grown up with works that emphasize risk and the unexpected such as Sartre’s The Wall, Tevis’ The Hustler, and Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid, I would come up with a particularly American formulation of tragedy as a gambling act? But then again, I am Canadian. Who would have thought that it would take a Canadian to come up with an American interpretation of theatre? The unexpected is truly all around us!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Later Roman Empire – Ammianus (trans. Walter Hamilton)

506 pages, Penguin, 1986

Book Blurb

Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Roman historian, and his writings rank alongside those of Livy and Tacitus. The Later Roman Empire chronicles a period of twenty-five years during Ammianus’ lifetime, covering the reigns of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens, and providing eyewitness accounts of significant military events including the Battle of Strasbourg and the Goths’ Revolt. Portraying a time of rapid and dramatic change, Ammianus describes an Empire exhausted by excessive taxation, corruption, the financial ruin of the middle classes and the progressive decline in the morale of the army. In this magisterial depiction of the closing decades of the Roman Empire, we can see the seeds of the events that were to lead to the fall of the city, just twenty years after Ammianus’ death. This selection includes the major parts of the surviving books of the history. Walter Hamilton’s fine translation captures the stylish vigour of the original, while Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s introduction describes the life and works of Ammianus and places the history in the context of its times.

Author Blurb

Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Roman historian. He was not a professional man of letters but an army officer of Greek origin born at Antioch and contemporary with the events described in what remains of his work. He set himself the task of continuing the histories of Tacitus from AD 96 down to his own day. The first thirteen of his thirty-one books are lost: the remainder describe a period of only twenty-five years (AD 354-378) and the reigns of the emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens, for which he is a prime authority. He was a pagan and an admirer of the apostate Julian, to whose career about half the surviving books are devoted. But his treatment of Christianity is free from prejudice and his imparitality and good judgement have been generally recognized. His style is sometimes bizarre, but in all the essential qualities of an historian he deserves the praise accorded to him by Gibbon and is well able to stand comparison with Livy and Tacitus.

Review of Ammianus’ The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378)

While reading The Later Roman Empire, I feel an affinity with the Roman legions in Tacitus who have wandered far from Italian soil and too far into Germany. The fog is everywhere, the marshlands extends forever, the sun no longer shines. They have reached the edge of the known world. While Tacitus’ legions have wandered too far in space, I feel, while reading Ammianus, that I have wandered too far in time. This is no longer the Roman Empire of old. This is something else. Not quite the Middle Ages, not quite classical antiquity.

In Ammianus’ time, the world is a smaller space. The Roman Empire is sick. This is not Livy’s Rome, which was expanding. Nor is it Tacitus’ Rome, which was consolidating it’s powers. This is an old Rome, sick unto death. In Livy and Tacitus, temporary setbacks due to lavishness, foreign influences, and profligacy (the usual suspects) could be overcome by a return to the mos maiorum, “the way of our ancestors.” No longer in the Late Empire. The corruption is now systemic. Even Valentinian’s attempts at reform are due to cruelty and a desire to see others suffer than the good old mos maiorum doctrine.

In Ammianus’ time, the Empire is split between east and west. The emperor, or the “Augustus” watches over one half, while the prince, or the “Caesar” watches over the other. The barbarians constantly push against the boundaries and the army is constantly pushing back. The Augustus and the Caesar are on a neverending campaign. They themselves ride into battle in a magisterial if perhaps misguided show of noblesse oblige. Perhaps, like the Empire, they are tired of being alive.

In Ammianus’ history, Rome is far away. What is going on in Rome? Are the senators coming up with new policies? Do the masses have enough grain? Who knows. Compared with the hostile frontier, Rome is an insignificant speck. Germans, Gauls, and Persians are the focus of attention. Guys names “Gundomadus” and “Dagalaifus” run around in Ammianus’ history. We are no longer in Kansas, Dorothy.

Despite the book blurb, in style and substance, Ammianus cannot compare with Tacitus and Livy. Part of this may be due to the loss of the all-important prologue, which is, for me, the most interesting part of the text. In the prologue, the historian justifies the writing of his history. He talks of his predecessors’ failings and how he is filling in a gap. He talks up the period of history he concentrates on and why he, and only he, can capture accurately the story of that time. Ammianus’ style isn’t as weird as the introduction makes it out to be (e.g. I didn’t notice instances of what Gibbon refers to as Ammianus’ disorder, perplexity of narrative, false ornaments, and turgid metaphors). All in all, a fascinating look at how the Roman world had changed. If we take the Hannibalic War (218 BC) as the “coming of age” of Rome, and the period covered by Ammianus as Rome’s twilight (AD 378), it looks like, for some reason, Rome maintained her position as the primary Mediterranean world power for close to 600 years. What an amazing achievement. They ask: “Why did Rome fall?” But perhaps the real question is: “Why did Rome dominate for so long?”

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

A Short History of Financial Euphoria – Galbraith

113 pages, Penguin, 1993

Book Blurb

How is it that, with all the financial know-how and experience of the wizards on Wall Street and elsewhere, the market still goes boom and bust? How come people are so willing to get caught up in the mania of speculation when history tells us that a collapse is almost sure to follow?

In A Short History of Financial Euphoria, renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith reviews, with insight and wit, the common features of the great speculative episodes of the last three centuries–the seventeenth-century craze in Western Europe for investing in an unusual commodity: the tulip; Britain’s South Sea Bubble and the eighteenth century’s fascination with the joint-stock company, now called the corporation; and, more recently, the discovery of leverage in the form of junk bonds. Along the way, Galbraith explains the newfangled types of debt that different generations have dreamt up, and he entertains with anecdotes about the ingenuity with which some of the more notorious charlatans have convinced people to invest in financial ciphers.

Galtraith calls this book “a hymn of caution” for good reason. He wars that the time will come when the public hails yet another financial wizard. In that case, the reader will do well to remember the Galbraithian adage: “Financial genius is before the fall.” The appearance of the next John  Law, Robert Campeau, or Michael Milken may well be, after all, a harbinger of disaster.

Author Blurb

john Kenneth Galbraith is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University and was the U.S. ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration. His works The Great Crash 1929, The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State, and Economics and the Public Purpose are landmarks of political and economic analysis.

Quotes from A Short History of Financial Euphoria

Foreword to the 1993 Edition

“Recurrent speculative insanity and the associated financial deprivation and larger devastation are, I am persuaded, inherent in the system.” “In London, tourists going down the Thames to the Tower will extend their journey to encompass the Canary Wharf development, perhaps the most awesome recent example of speculative dementia.” Perhaps in 1992 when Olympia & York went bust. But fast forward nineteen years to 2015 and it’s a different story: Canary Wharf was sold to Brookfield for 2.6 billion pounds. “They think it will be an estimated twenty-six years in Boston, forty-six years in New York and fifty-six years in San Antonio [for real estate to recover from the excesses of the late eighties].” Unbeknownst to Galbraith, who was writing in 1993, the market would recover remarkably quickly, in about twelve years. Then the speculative excess would begin again in the events that would lead up to the Great Recession of 2008.

Chapter 1: The Speculative Episode

“Speculation buys up, in a very practical way, the intelligence of those involved.” “The price of the object of speculation goes up. Securities, land, objets d’art, and other property, when bought today are worth more tomorrow. This increase and the prospect attract new buyers; the new buyers assure a further increase. Yet more are attracted; yet more buy; the increase continues. The speculation building on itself provides its own momentum.

Chapter 2: The Common Denominators

“The rule will often be here reiterated: financial genius is before the fall.” Although Galbraith was writing before the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, his words are prescient. Two of the founders of LTMC, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, would collect their Nobel Prize in economics several months before the fund lost close to five billion dollars. The real loss was an order of magnitude larger, since, assured by their genius of success, they had leveraged their assets, borrowing over 124 billion dollars to jack-up their returns. The Fed eventually had to intervene to stabilize the cascading disaster. “The final and common feature of the speculative episode is what happens after the inevitable crash. There will be scrutiny of the previously much-praised financial instruments and practices–paper money; implausible securities issues; insider trading; market rigging; more recently, program and index trading–that have facilitated and financed the speculation. There will be talk of regulation and reform. What will not be discussed is the speculation itself or the aberrant optimism that lay behind it.”

Chapter 3: The Classic Cases, I: The Tulipomania; John Law and the Banque Royale

First great speculative episode begins with first modern stock market in seventeenth century Netherlands: the Tulipomania. Tulipomania started in 1630 and crashed in 1637. First great speculative episode where we know names happens with John Law in France. In 1716 he establishes the Banque Royale, which issued notes to pay government expenses: Louis XIV had recently died, leaving the treasury bankrupt. The Banque Royale notes would be backed by the Mississippi Company, which would mine the unproven gold reserves in Louisiana. Instead of mining gold, income from the notes went to refinance the bankrupt treasury. The end came in 1720, when the Prince de Conti, annoyed by the ability to buy stock, decided to turn in his notes for gold. When the notes proved to be inconvertible, a run on the stock took place. Term “millionaire” originated with the Banque Royale bubble. In the aftermath of the bubble, “those who had lost their minds as well as their money and made the speculation spared themselves all censure.” The blame fell squarely on John Law and the Banque Royale rather than the spirit of speculation.

Chapter 4: The Classic Cases, II: The Bubble

Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and John Blunt found the South Sea Company, a new-fangled “joint-stock company” in 1711. Like France in 1716, pressing government debt spurred financial innovation. The South Sea Company took over government debt from the War of Spanish Succession. In return, the government paid the company 6% interest and gave it the right to conduct British trade in the Americas. In 1720, the stock shot up from 128 to 1000 pounds. The success of the South Sea Company led to a rash of joint-stock companies being founded. Like with others bubbles, leverage amplified the losses and deepened the oncoming recession. Nice quote from Charles Mackay book:

In the autumn of 1720, public meetings were held in every considerable town of the empire, at which petitions were adopted, praying the vengeance of the legislature upon the South-Sea directors, who, by their fraudulent practices, had brought the nation to the brink of ruin. Nobody seemed to imagine that the nation itself was as culpable as the South-Sea company–the degrading lust of gain…or the infatuation which had made the multitude run their heads with such frantic eagerness into the net held out for them by scheming projectors. These things were never mentioned.

Chapter 5: The American Tradition

In Maryland and Southern colonies, notes against security of tobacco served as currency for two centuries in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A failed expedition in 1690 to take the fortress of Quebec led to Sir William Phipps issuing paper notes backed on gold. State banks begin issuing notes following the War of 1812 and the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816 (the First Bank lost its charter in 1810 due to its refusal to issue easy money) to oversee the boom. In 1819, however, a collapse in housing prices ended the boom. 1837 witnessed the next American crash, which was, again, rooted in land speculation. This bust, did, however, leave behind a useful canal network. Insufficient reserves were a culprit: one New England bank had $500,000 in notes outstanding and a specie reserve of $86.48 in hand.

Chapter 6: 1929

1920s were a decade of excess, beginning with the Florida real estate boon which saw the rise and fall of Charles Ponzi in 1926. New York stock exchange prices started rising in 1924 before finally collapsing in 1929. Leverage was again a culprit, as speculators could chase stocks on 10 percent margin. Again, in the 1929 crash “nothing was said or done or, in fact, could be done about the decisive factor–the tendency to speculation itself.”

Chapter 7: October Redux

Financial memory of bubbles lasts twenty years. After that time, a new generation enters the scene, enamoured of its own innovative genius. After 1929, the next major bubble would surface in the 60s under the name of Investors Overseas Services, founded by Bernard Cornfeld. His pitch was: “Do you sincerely want to be rich?” The son of FDR, Sir Eric Syndham White (the secretary-general of GATT), and Dr. Erich Mende (vice-chancellor of the German Federal Republic) were all swindled. Leverage came back in the 80s in the form of leveraged buyouts, corporate takeovers, and junk bonds. The SEC report of the 1987 crash “found innocent those individuals, speculative funds, pension funds, and other institutions that had so unwisely, in naiveté and high expectation, repaired to the casino.

Chapter 8: Reprise

Individuals and institutions are captured by the wondrous satisfaction from accruing wealth. The associated illusion of insight is protected, in turn, by the oft-noted public impression that intelligence, one’s own and that of others, marches in close step with the possession of money. Out of that belief, thus instilled, then comes action–the bidding up of values, whether in land, securities, or, as recently, art. The upward movement confirms the commitment to personal and group wisdom. And so on to the moment of mass disillusion and the crash. This last, it will now be sufficiently evident, never comes gently. It is always accompanied by a desperate and largely unsuccessful effort to get out.

So, what can be done?

Yet beyond a better perception of the speculative tendency and process itself, there probably is not a great deal that can be done. Regulation outlawing financial incredulity or mass euphoria is not a practical possibility. If applied generally to such human condition, the result would be an impressive, perhaps oppressive, and certainly ineffective body of law.

The Review…

I like his style. Short sentences. Concise. He has thought the issues through for a long, long time. They are worked out in his head. At just over a hundred pages, this book reads fast and can be finished in one sitting. Galbraith writes with a dry sense of humour. It is almost as if he finds it amusing that the cycle of boom and bust will repeat again and again. In the first edition, he hopes that readers of his book will be inured against the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later in the 1993 edition, he is no longer so sure: he had overestimated the power of the rational mind to overcome the allure of wealth. All that glitters is gold.

This is an uncommonly common sense book. With all the soul-searching on the events leading up to the Great Recession, Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria has something to say. He would say that: 1) rising house values were based on real factors, 2) once people got wind of how money can be made of flipping houses, the speculation began, 3) as the mania increased, speculators resorted to using more and more leverage, 4) when housing prices fell, as they do from time to time, there was a mad rush to get out, which led to a bust, 5) the blame for the bust falls on the speculators as much as it does on the banks or capitalism, 6) there was nothing that the regulators could have done, and 7) it will happen again, and soon.

What Galbraith doesn’t say is equally as interesting. While he says that busts can depress countries for years, he doesn’t say for how long. For example, take the Great Depression. The commonly cited doom and gloom statistic is that it took the Dow twenty-five years to return to 387, the high point in October 1929. There are many stock charts that illustrate this calamity. But factor in dividends (the stock chart doesn’t include dividends, which amounted to about 14% of the return) and deflation (even though prices were down, the purchasing power of each dollar went up because goods and services cost less), it took the Dow–drum-roll here–four and a half years to recover.

What Galbraith doesn’t say is that, during a bust, the best thing to do may be to do nothing. If you do do something, do not sell. Buy. With some patience, busts may be godsends. Keep some powder dry. Another example of a bust Galbraith gives is Canary Wharf. While Paul Reichman, the developer, did go bust in 1992, the Canary Wharf development recovered to become the main financial centre of UK and one of the main financial hubs of the world. His vision, if not his use of leverage, was vindicated. It’s the same with the Great Recession of 2008 or the Dot-Com bust of 2000: do nothing and investments will recover. While Galbraith’s book focusses on the human tendency to speculate and bust, that negative tendency is counterbalanced by the human capacity to work through crises to emerge stronger. It would be interesting to see how investors would have fared in each of the busts he discusses if they had simply held on and done nothing.

The other thing that Galbraith doesn’t talk about is why people pursue speculative excess. He does say that it is motivated by want of gain. And he does write about the notable incidents since the 1600s when speculators were wrong: Tulip Mania, the Banque Royale, the South Sea Company, and so on. But what if the speculators were not as misguided as he believe?–sometimes speculators win! Since the beginning of the bull market on March 9, 2009, Royal Caribbean Cruises is up 1911%, Apple is up 1715%, Alaska Air is up 1818%, and there are many others. To me, the true question to ask is whether speculation can be, in many instances, justified. If, on every occasion, rapid price escalation ends in a wailing and a gnashing of teeth, the answer is no. But that appears not to be the case. Many instances prove otherwise.

All in all, an excellent book in need of an indexer.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.