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Rambles Through My Library Paperback – April 13, 2009
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If this sounds dry, it isn't. Smullyan is a master, an extraordinary master, of zeroing in on the most interesting and memorable facet of a particular book or author. Indeed, Smullyan himself is known for his incredible, virtually unprecedented, knack for highlighting the elegance and the clarity of subjects that many find opaque and dry, like mathematical logic. I had read several works by Smullyan on mathematical logic, most recently his brilliant essay in the Handbook of Philosophical Logical on incompleteness theorems that manages to present Goedel's second incompleteness theorem in the form of a beautiful, simple, puzzle fully accessible to laymen.
Anyway, this book has terrific stories about Samuel Johnson, about early stage actors, about book-collecting, and some wonderful essays on idleness (or laziness), not to mention some nice excerpts from Bierce. I won't spoil the jokes and anecdotes by repeating them here - it's quite a short book - but they are memorable. Oh, and he skewers some authors who I myself concur are highly overrated as well.
I had only four complaints about the book.
First, quite a bit of it deals with material in translation. There are a lot of quotations from Chinese poetry, for example, and some from Greek. I am deeply skeptical about the value or purpose of reading poetry in translation, as this seems to me to do violence to the very idea of poetry, which is to use perfectly the tools of sense and sound of a particular language. Even though the translations are interesting to read, there is no way to know how accurately they reflect the originals. At the very least, I think that more detail on the originals and how the translations were done should have been included, particularly given Smullyan's penchant for precision.
Second, I would have preferred to see far more photographs, and also far higher-resolution photographs. I would have liked to have seen exactly what these books he discusses look like, at least the antiquarian ones.
Third, I wish the book were much longer, with a complete description of his library, or at least a catalog and short notes. Smullyan always prefers to present a small amount of thought-provoking material in his writings though. But still, the book sparks curiosity that is unfulfilled.
Finally, fourth, there's for me a wistfulness and poignancy to reading this book, because Smullyan is such an extraordinary and fascinating guy, with so many amazing stories (from his lives as a magician, working in a carnival, as a mathematician, as a reader, as a pianist) that I wish more information were available about him, that he had written more and shared more about himself over the decades. Moreover, the fact is that people like Smullyan, with his clear, penetrating mind, wonderful sense of humor, appreciation for all that is logical and beautiful, seem rarer and rarer and indeed barely exist at all any more. He embodies a culture of tolerance, of love of thought, of humanity that no longer exists. So it is somewhat sad reading his stories about love of books and of philosophy, knowing how one is reading stories about a bygone age.
In any case, there is sure to be something to interest everyone in this "ramble."
Smullyan loves both obscure authors who have been unfairly neglected and authors who remind him of himself, so it's perhaps not surprising that he is himself an unfairly neglected author. Now in his nineties, he's as thoroughly enjoyable company as ever, both whimsical and wise. Whether reflecting on theatre, Samuel Johnson's character, the nature of book collecting, leisure, or ancient Chinese poetry, his insatiable curiosity and sense of wonder is infectious.
I now have a number of authors to add to my reading list, including the little-known American Hamilton Wright Mabie. In an essay called 'A Word for Idleness', Mabie writes:
"The study fire is sometimes so potent a solicitation to reverie that I ask myself whether it not be a subtle kind of temptation. Even when a man has cleared himself of the cant of the day, as Carlyle would put it, and delivered himself of the American illusion that every hour not devoted to "doing something" is an hour wasted, the inherited instinct is still strong enough to make an appeal to conscience. Those active, aggressive words, "doing" and "getting," have so long usurped the greater part of the space in our vocabulary that we use the words being and growing with a little uncertainty; most of us are not entirely at ease with them yet. ... The deepest life is as silent as the soil out of which the glory of summer bursts; all noble activities issue from it, and no great work is ever done save by those who have lived in the repose which precedes creation."
As Smullyan writes, this is sublime. 'Rambles Through My Library' is a slim book, but holds more than enough such discoveries to make an hour or so of idleness very worthwhile. The tao may be silent; fortunately, Smullyan is not.