Letters From Santorini: Selected Reading

Is there anything that cannot be learnt from the Greek thinkers, the Russian novelists, and the English poets and playwrights? Such is beginning to be my conclusion whilst at Atlantis Books.

But reading can be surprisingly difficult to do here. First, the selection is overwhelming. The shelves are filled with temptation, books that stare at you mournfully and accusingly and ask why you haven’t read them yet. How do you select one, when to make a selection is to reject all the others?

And there’s always something to do – customers to serve, shelves to dust, cooking, writing, wine drinking, admin and emailing, wrestling with the tangles of Greek bureaucracy and so on and so forth. Just like in the real world, it can be hard to make time for books, even when you are surrounded by them.

But I’ve still got a fair whack of reading done. It is strange to consider how important reading is to me. It is an education, religion, meditation, entertainment…and yet it is such an odd activity to devote oneself to. Turning pages, reading black scratches on white paper and converting them into a story, a personal philosophy, a way of life…

Here’s some of the books I’ve read whilst out here, in no particular order. Anyone read any of these? What did you think?

Selected Poems of Byron (Unfinished)

Fascinating character as he is, I think that the celebrity of Byron is more interesting than his poetry. Compared to his contemporaries, he seems like little more than an occasionally witty rhymester, undermined by narcissism. A hundred pages was enough for me.

Homer’s Odyssey, Armitage

Bit of a disappointment this one. Homer’s Odyssey reimagined as a radio play. Armitage is very good at rowdy crowd scenes and has a good comic touch, so the Suitors, the Gods, and Odysseus’s crew are pretty fun, but he struggles with heroism and serious sentiment. With the Odyssey, this is a problem.

The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn

Flat out brilliant. What is it about Russia that produces such brilliant novelists and chess players? Those long cold winters, perhaps. This evocation of Stalinist Russia is convincing, terrifying (especially when Stalin crops up), angry and humane. For the first time in ages I’ve felt proud with the society I live in. Western capitalism may have its faults, but damn if it isn’t better than this kind of totalitarian horror.

A Primer of Chess, Capablanca

A very fine book on chess tactics. Many parts a little too technical for me, but he talks very pragmatically about the basics.

Batsfords Modern Chess Openings

Only leafed through this, but fascinating stuff. You could get seriously lost in it. I’m now a fan of the Italian Game, the Ruy Lopez, and The Queen’s Gambit for white, and the Sicilian Defence and Berlin Defence for black.

The Defence, Nabokov

After reading this and Lolita, I think that Nabokov is a truly stunning stylist and character writer, but that his plotting and narrative are a little patchy. Some cracking descriptions of chess playing though…

Chess, Zweig

Noticing a pattern yet?

A cracking little novella about a game of chess on a ferry to Buenos Aires. Simple story, very well told.

Ways of Seeing, Berger

A very good collection of visual and written essays on perception, painting, and art. Liable to change your way of seeing. The chapter on the depiction of femininity in painting is particularly troubling.

Aristotle’s Politics (In progress)

I’m alternating each of my other books with a section of Aristotle’s Politics. Meaty stuff, but he has a brilliant mind and some very interesting ideas about capital (he inspired Marx), slavery (he views it as necessary and natural), and the organisation of society as a whole.

The Theban Plays, (Sophocles)

With the Greeks, everything was in its infancy – poetry, drama, philosophy, history, democracy. Everything was unexplored. The Greek drama that I’ve read so far is basic compared to modern day works, but the force of the debates in the plays survives unravaged by time, with Antigone the real star of the Theban plays.

Orestes, Bakkhi, Medea, Iphigenia at Aulis (Euripides)

Orestes was a bit naff, and Bakkhi pales in comparison to Ted Hughes’s version of the same story in his Tales from Ovid, but Iphigenia and Medea are damn fine. Iphigenia is a compelling look at man’s capacity to justify unjustifiable acts. Medea is just pure taboo from start to finish, and the last messenger’s speech is jaw droppingly gruesome.

Much better than the distinctly overrated film, this is a outstanding piece of journalistic writing. Makes you sick to read it. The most startling thing is that the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) are now businessmen who, by fair means and foul, are simply better than any of the competition. They are products of the economic system. They are capitalism carried to its logical and immoral extreme – business that is pure profit and zero ethics, where everything (labour, drugs, clothing, people, even chemical waste) is a commodity to be marketed and sold. Everyone benefits, from Western consumers to business leaders and politicians (and of course the Camorra) except for the urban poor and migrant workers. And who gives a shit about them? Nobody with any kind of power, anyway.

East of Eden (In progress), Steinbeck

A real cracker of a novel. Biblical Genesis reimagined as a family epic in 19th century California. Very, very well written indeed.

Journal of a Novel (In progress)
, Steinbeck

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck wrote a letter to his publisher every day before he did his day’s quota of writing. For aspiring writers it is an inspirational, personal, and, in places, highly familiar documentary of the joys and pleasures that come when you are wrestling with a book.


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