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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

David Bowie's "Must-Read" list

Most of us resist the idea of our own mortality but, come the sudden passing of younger people who had some significance in our lives, we develop an almost morbid fascination with the prospect……
We expect 98-year olds like Denis Healey, Helmut Schmidt and Albert Hirschman to pass away but the sudden deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman bring a powerful wake-up call to people of my age

I was, as it happens, in the middle of a large biography of Hirschman - Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (the link gives an excellent overview of both the man and the book) - who died 3 years ago and was one of the greatest exponents of the nature and importance of challenging the “conventional thinking” and of “intellectual trespassing”…This has inspired me to devote a post to him…,,
But bear with me for a day or so while I collect and edit the numerous other goodies which cyberspace offers about the various sides to his life which I think his biographer has caught well with the term “odyssey”.

In the meantime, Daniela and I were intrigued by the list of David Bowie’s 100 “Must-Read” books which is part of a current exhibition in Ontario. Daniela is Romanian and had access in the 70s and 80s to the Romanian translations of not only Western classics but contemporary American and European texts which (despite the repression) were available after Ceaucescu struck his maverick stance in the Eastern bloc (most Romanians are proud of their country’s refusal to join the 1968 repression of Czechoslovak liberties).
But she recognized only a few of the titles in Bowie’s list – and has raised the interesting question of the “East-West gap” in mutual understanding of one another’s literature (and cultures generally).

My Balkans residency of the past decade has made me more sensitive to the wonder that was 20th century Central European literature (my five page recommended reading list for Romania can be accessed at section 4 of Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey – although I cheated by including some English novels with a Romanian theme!).
The reading public, it seems, are developing a new interest in translations of older writers such as Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada who, however well-known in their home country, made little or no impact in English-speaking countries. The New York Review of Books classic series started a few years back to repair this fault – and there are also some great titles of mid-century central european books at small publishers such as the Pushkin Press.

Most of the works offer much more powerful writing than that from contemporary writers of the English-speaking world – however hyped the latter is. So there is every incentive to start using these catalogues.
Five years ago, the Guardian actually ran a fascinating series on world literature, inviting readers to suggest books eg this was its Polish invitation and this a nice tabular presentation of the final results. Chinese and then Russian literature were also presented in the same way -
No fewer than 200 books get close analysis in these results of a reader’s survey about French literature – and more than 150 in this survey of German literatureAlmost 100 novels get the treatment in this table about Indonesia
Other countries were covered but without the tabulated results s but, with this link, you can hunt down the ones of interest...... 

But a few hundred responses don’t suggest English readers’ familiarity with foreign – let alone “Eastern” - literature. And of course most of this material covers novels – whereas Bowie’s list is more general. It also makes me realize that there at least three types of lists of what we might call “significant reads” 
- Those we once liked - which made an early personal impact eg early seminal reading – some examples of mine were captured in this 2009 post
- Those which matter - which made an impact on our collective social understanding (many of which we may not actually have read personally - let alone liked. (here's a short list I made for for the period from the 1970s)
- Those we like now - which might be recommended or bought for family and friends. I have apparently done one list of favourite book – but it was some time ago (December 2010)

Interestingly, central Europeans dominate that second list (although, thanks to Hitler, many of then wrote their most famous work in American English). And that's where perhaps a major shift has taken place.....in the 1930s European intellectual and literary writing was at the heart of the world's thinking - now it's at the periphery..... 

Five years on - and while the snow lies thick on the ground, it will be interesting to do an update of the last list

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