Great Books

In between writing, reading and filleting good books on topics of the day as far as my social-knowledge and decision-making research agenda is concerned, I like to catch up on the great books. They’re great books for a reason, and the reason is often timeless.

It’s three weeks since I posted for some reason. I cleared my decks in order to attend the Meaning 2016 conference in Brighton, drafted a very long post of reflections of that. Good, positively recommended, but at the same time disappointing. Needs a bit of editing before I post publicly. See, the new business and economic models are genuinely exciting, yet nevertheless timeless. Innovation is overrated – there’s really nothing new under the sun. The excitement is that pockets of people pick-up on their value and resolve to work towards them, not that they’re new.

In fact, my main agenda is to address why pockets of goodness do not generally spread. The memetic effect, that simplified “received wisdom” spreads much quicker and more easily than good ideas.

Even behind the great firewall of China again, as I was on business earlier this week, I had full VPN access to the rest of my world this time, but still barely posted, even on social media. Didn’t even snap and share any selfies walking around the old town parts of Chengdu, all bejazzled for the Christmas tourists. Pandas anyone? When I wasn’t being over-fed by the hospitality of my hosts, I was reading.

Anna Karenina is one of those great works, like Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, that I must have started, even read up to a handful of chapters, half-a-dozen times. Already familiar with his “unhappy families” and even Vronsky at the horse race – but always too distracted to read on through the patronymics, familials and informals to actually get the point of greatness. And of course I must have seen two or three film and TV dramatisations over the years, not to mention the meme of recalling Anna everytime I’ve set foot on a snowy windswept railway platform, typically for some reason at Slependen, Oslo, in my memories. Meme upon meme.

I’ve just finished reading the Penguin Classics Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, whose cover blurb includes:

“[T]he vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.”

We probably all know Tolstoy as a “devout Christian” and of course I’m an atheist, rationalist, humanist, so it would be easy to be prejudiced against Levin’s (ie Tolstoy’s) enlightenment. But it’s an enlightenment I feel I share.

I know in fact.

The word may translate as God, but it is God as in “the good” – no superhuman, supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent, causal agent here. Church too, but not as organised religion or ritualised superstition, simply as socially shared knowledge of the good. And knowing that it is good in the collective action of individuals and not in any disembodied rational conception of scientists and philosophers. Beyond words. Rationality is our most powerful tool, but love is greater, being neither thing nor tool.

Good philosophers know this. Good people enact it. The good man Jesus and Christ the scoundrel anyone? Jeez – even good humanists know this.

There’s a lot of agriculture and “what about the workers?” in Karenina. Oh, and – spoiler alert – sadly, Anna doesn’t make it through her paranoia. Too great for mere me to do it justice in any actual review or selection of quotes.

Simply, a great book.

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