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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Intellectual Devotional

It's been a crazy couple of weeks over here, resulting in very few book blog entries.

That said, the good folks over at FSB Associates have recently shared a new book: The Intellectual Devotional. I've been taking the one page a day approach that it recommends, so my review is a little slow in coming. But I figured in the meantime I'd share with you the excerpts (or at least the Monday and Tuesday entries. I'll save the others for later in the week) that they so kindly provided:

The Intellectual Devotional
Week 1
By David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim

Daily Devotionals have long been a favored tool of those looking for a regular dose of spiritual growth. Bedside volumes, read upon waking in the morning or before retiring at night, Devotionals consist of 365 exercises in learning and reflection. One easily digestible entry is tackled each day.

The Intellectual Devotional is a secular compendium in the same tradition. It is one year's worth of daily readings that will refresh your spirit, stimulate your mind, and help complete your education. Each entry is drawn from a different field of knowledge: History, Literature, Visual Arts, Science, Music, Philosophy, and Religion. Read one passage a day and you will explore each subject once a week.

These readings offer the kind of regular exercise the brain requires to stay fresh, especially as we age. They represent an escape from the day-to-day grind into the rarefied realm of human wisdom. And, they will open new horizons of intellectual discovery.
A brief summary of the journey ahead . . .

Monday -- History
A survey of people and events that shaped the development of Western civilization.

Tuesday -- Literature

A look at great writers and a synopsis of their most important works -- poems and novels that continue to inspire readers today.

Wednesday -- Visual Arts

An introduction to the artists and artistic movements that yielded the world's most influential paintings, sculptures, and works of architecture.

Thursday -- Science
From the origin of black holes to a description of how batteries work, the wonders of science are simplified and revealed.

Friday -- Music
What inspired our greatest composers, how to read a sheet of notes, and why Mozart is so revered -- a comprehensive review of our musical heritage.

Saturday -- Philosophy
From ancient Greece to the twentieth century, the efforts of mankind's greatest thinkers to explain the meaning of life and the universe.

Sunday -- Religion
An overview of the world's major religions and their beliefs.

We hope your progress through this collection of knowledge inspires your curiosity and opens new areas of exploration in your life.
--David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim

Week 1
History
Monday, Day 1
The Alphabet
In circa 2000 BC, the Egyptian pharaohs realized they had a problem. With each military victory over their neighbors, they captured and enslaved more prisoners of war. But the Egyptians could not pass down written orders to these slaves as they could not read hieroglyphics.

Early writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, were extremely cumbersome and difficult to learn. These systems had thousands of characters, with each symbol representing an idea or word. Memorizing them could take years. Only a handful of Egyptians could actually read and write their complicated script.

Linguists believe that almost all modern alphabets are derived from the simplified version of hieroglyphics devised by the Egyptians four thousand years ago to communicate with their slaves. The development of an alphabet, the writing system used throughout the Western world, changed the way the ancients communicated.

In the simplified version, each character represented only a sound. This innovation cut back the number of characters from a few thousand to a few dozen, making it far easier to learn and use the characters. The complicated hieroglyphic language was eventually forgotten, and scholars were not able to translate the characters until the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799.

The alphabet was extremely successful. When the Egyptian slaves eventually migrated back to their home countries, they took the writing system with them. The alphabet spread across the Near East, becoming the foundation for many writing systems in the area, including Hebrew and Arabic. The Phoenicians, an ancient civilization of seaborne traders, spread the alphabet to the tribes they encountered along the Mediterranean coast. The Greek and Roman alphabets, in turn, were based on the ancient Phoenician script. Today most Western languages, including English, use the Roman alphabet.

Additional Facts
1. Several letters in modern-day English are direct descendents of ancient Egyptian characters. For instance, the letter B derives from the Egyptian character for the word house.

2. The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current usage, among the most of any language.

Literature
Tuesday, Day 2
Ulysses
James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) is widely regarded as the greatest novel written in English in the twentieth century. It retells Homer's Odyssey in the context of a single day -- June 16, 1904 -- in Dublin, Ireland, recasting Homer's great hero Odysseus in the unlikely guise of Leopold Bloom, an aging, cuckolded ad salesman who spends the day running errands and making various business appointments before he returns home at long last.

Though Bloom seems unassuming and ordinary, he emerges as a heroic figure, displaying compassion, forgiveness, and generosity toward virtually everyone in the odd cast of characters he meets. In his mundane and often unnoticed deeds, he practices an everyday heroism that is perhaps the only heroism possible in the modern world. And despite the fact that he always feels like an outsider -- he is a Jew in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland -- Bloom remains optimistic and dismisses his insecurities.

Ulysses is celebrated for its incredibly rich portraits of characters, its mind-boggling array of allusions to other literary and cultural works, and its many innovations with language. Throughout the course of the novel, Joyce flirts with literary genres and forms ranging from drama to advertising copy to Old English. The novel is perhaps most famous for its extensive use of stream-of-consciousness narrative -- Joyce's attempt to render the inner thoughts of his characters exactly as they occur, with no effort to impose order or organization. This technique became a hallmark of modernist literature and influenced countless other writers, such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, who also experimented with it in their works.

Not surprisingly, Ulysses poses a difficult journey for the reader, especially its famous last chapter, which recounts the thoughts of Bloom's wife, Molly. Molly's reverie goes on for more than 24,000 words yet is divided into only eight mammoth sentences. Despite the challenge it poses, the chapter shows Joyce at his most lyrical, especially in the final lines, which reaffirm Molly's love for her husband despite her infidelity:

and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Additional Fact
1. Ulysses was banned for obscenity in the United States for nearly twelve years because of its (mostly indirect) sexual imagery.

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