Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.
In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Fanny Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan, the English translations of the books by Zhores and Roy Medvedev)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of Lafcadio Hearn or AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.

Charles Burney

This post is a history of the family of Charles Burney FRS (1726-1814), musician and musicologist, and his ancestors and descendants.
Sir MacBurney was one of the 60 Knights who participated in a jousting tournament, supervised by Geoffrey Chaucer on the orders of Richard II, held at Smithfield in London in 1390.
One James Macburney is said to have come south to London from Scotland with King James I and VI in 1603.   His descendant (likely a grandson), also James Macburney, was born around 1653 and had a house in Whitehall.   His son, also called James Macburney (1678-1749), was born in Great Hanwood, Shropshire, around 1678, and attended Westminster School in London.   In 1697, he eloped with Rebecca Ellis, against his father’s wishes. As a consequence, the younger James was not left anything when his father died.  The  younger man’s stepbrother, Joseph Macburney (born of a second wife) was left the entire estate of their father.
This younger James Macburney (1678-1749) was a dancer, violinist and painter, and was supposedly a wit and bon viveur.  He and Rebecca Ellis had 15 children over 20 years, of whom 9 survived into adulthood.   By 1720, he had moved to Shrewsbury,  and Rebecca had died.  He married again, to Ann Cooper, who apparently brought money to the union which helped her somewhat feckless husband. This second marriage produced 5 further children, among whom were Richard Burney (1723-1792) (christened “Berney”).  The last two children were twins, Charles Burney (1726-1814) and Susanna (1726-1734?), who died at the age of 8.  Their father James had apparently dropped the prefix “Mac” around the time of the birth of the  twins.
One of Charles’ half-brothers was James Burney (1710-1789), who was organist at St. Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, for 54 years, from 1732 to 1786. Charles Burney worked as his assistant from 1742 until 1744.
For a period, Charles Burney and his family lived in Isaac Newton’s former house at 35 St Martin’s Street, Leicester Square, London.  Among Charles’ children were:

  • Esther Burney (1749-1832), harpsichordist, who married her cousin Charles Rousseau Burney (1747-1819), also a keyboardist and violinist.
  • Rear Admiral James Burney RN FRS (1750-1821), naval historian and sailor, who twice sailed around the world with Captain James Cook RN.
  • Fanny Burney, later Madame d’Arblay (1752-1840), novelist and playwright.
  • Rev. Charles Burney FRS (1757-1817), classical scholar.
  • Charlotte Ann Burney, later Mrs Broome (1761-1838), novelist.
  • Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844), novelist.

Charles’ nephew, Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848), artist and violinist, was a brother to Charles Rousseau Burney, both sons of Richard Burney (1723-1792), Charles’s elder brother.  This is a self-portrait of Edward Francisco Burney (Creative Commons License from National Portrait Gallery, London):
image
In 1793, Fanny Burney married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay (1754-1818), an emigre French aristocrat and soldier, and adjutant-general to Lafayette. Their son, Alexander d’Arblay (1794-1837), was a poet and keen chess-player, and was 10th wrangler in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge in 1818, where he was a friend of fellow-student Charles Babbage.  He was also a member of Babbage’s Analytical Society (forerunner of the Cambridge Philosophical Society), which sought to introduce modern analysis, including Leibnizian notation for the differential calculus, into mathematics teaching at Cambridge. d’Arblay was ordained and served as founding minister of Camden Town Chapel (later the Greek Orthodox All Saints Camden) from 1824-1837, and then served briefly at Ely Chapel in High Holborn, London. The founding organist at Camden Town Chapel was Samuel Wesley (1766-1837).
Not everyone was a fan of clan Burney. Here is William Hazlitt:

“There are whole families who are born classical, and are entered in the heralds’ college of reputation by the right of consanguinity. Literature, like nobility, runs in the blood. There is the Burney family. There is no end of it or its pretensions. It produces wits, scholars, novelists, musicians, artists in ‘numbers numberless.’ The name is alone a passport to the Temple of Fame. Those who bear it are free of Parnassus by birthright. The founder of it was himself an historian and a musician, but more of a courtier and man of the world than either. The secret of his success may perhaps be discovered in the following passage, where, in alluding to three eminent performers on different instruments, he says: ‘These three illustrious personages were introduced at the Emperor’s court,’ etc.; speaking of them as if they were foreign ambassadors or princes of the blood, and thus magnifying himself and his profession. This overshadowing manner carries nearly everything before it, and mystifies a great many. There is nothing like putting the best face upon things, and leaving others to find out the difference. He who could call three musicians ‘personages’ would himself play a personage through life, and succeed in his leading object. Sir Joshua Reynolds, remarking on this passage, said: ‘No one had a greater respect than he had for his profession, but that he should never think of applying to it epithets that were appropriated merely to external rank and distinction.’ Madame d’Arblay, it must be owned, had cleverness enough to stock a whole family, and to set up her cousin-germans, male and female, for wits and virtuosos to the third and fourth generation. The rest have done nothing, that I know of, but keep up the name.” (On the Aristocracy of Letters, 1822).

References:
ODNB
K. S. Grant: ” Charles Burney”, Grove Music Online. (Accessed 2006-12-10.)
POST MOST RECENTLY UPDATED:  2014-08-30.

Recent Reading 11

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.
Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.
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Preaching, advising, rebuking, reviling

Henry James on literary criticism (in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, March 1873):

I do  . . . believe in criticism, more than that hyperbolical speech of mine would seem to suggest.   What I meant to express was my sense of its being, latterly, vastly over-done.  There is such a flood of precepts, and so few examples – so much preaching, advising, rebuking & reviling, & so little doing: so many gentlemen sitting down to dispose in half an hour of what a few have spent months & years in producing. A single positive attempt, even with great faults, is worth generally most of the comments and amendments on it.”

Go West, young man

BlueHighways

I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve. I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool that seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon. Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered.’ It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
It was just where I went.”

Robert Penn Warren [1946]: All the King’s Men.  Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Recent Reading 10

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.
David Eagleman [2010]: Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.  (London, UK:  Canongate).  A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating.  One will blow your mind!  (HT: WPN).
A. C. Grayling [2013]:  Friendship.  (New Haven, CT and London, UK:  Yale University Press).
Andrew Sullivan [1998]:  Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival.  (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).
Michael Blakemore [2013]: Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber).  A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.
Continue reading ‘Recent Reading 10’

Recent Reading 9

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:
Anita Raghavan [2013]:  The Billionaire’s Apprentice:  The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund.  (New York:  Business Plus).   This is a fascinating and excitingly-written account of the rise and fall of several people, many of them Americans of South Asian descent, associated with the activities of the Galleon hedge fund.  First among these is billionaire Tamil-American Raj Rajaratnam, founder of Galleon, and convicted insider-trader.  In the next tier are his many insider informants, primaily Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar, both prominent partners of McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm.  Indeed, Gupta was three times elected global MD of McKinsey by his fellow partners, and thus the book has lots of fascinating information about The Firm and its operations, incidental to the main story.
Insider trading is a strange crime.  Surely most traders engaged in trading for its own sake (and not hedging some activity or transaction in non-financial markets) seek to take advantage of something they know that others don’t, even if it is just knowledge arising from more clever or faster analysis, or the knowledge that comes from aggregating views across multiple trades.   And who, exactly, are the victims here, since any trading requires a willing counterparty?    But even if insider-trading is not considered an evil, there is great dishonour in breaching confidences gained in positions of trust, and there seems little doubt that Rajaratnam’s informants did that.
An odd feature of the book, where so many prominent Indian Americans and South-Asian businesspeople are name-checked, is the failure to mention Praful Gupta.   As far as I am aware, the two Guptas were no relation, and met when they were fellow students at Harvard Business School.  Rajat Gupta, in a newspaper interview in 1994, said they became and remained very good friends.  While Rajat pursued a career with McKinsey, Praful became a management consultant and partner with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and later a senior executive with Reliance Industries.
An annoying feature of the writing is the author’s repeated confusion about tense.   On page 217, for instance, we read, “In 2005, Lloyd Blankfein’s predecessor and former secretary of the Treasury Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. had approached Gupta about joining the Goldman board of directors.”  But Hank Paulson only became Secretary of the US Treasury in 2006, where he remained until January 2009.   At the time this sentence was written by Raghavan in 2012 or 2013, Paulson was a former Treasury Secretary, but not in 2005, the time referred to at the opening of the sentence.   There are similar instances of inaccurate or confused tense on pages 257, 288, 347, and 362, and no doubt more that I did not catch.  These appear so frequently that one is tempted to consider them not mere lapses nor evidence of a non-grammatical linguistic style, but indicative of a more fundamental difference between the author’s conceptualization of time and that of most speakers of English. There are also a number of confusions or ambiguities of subject and object, and of deictic markers, in sentences throughout the text.
 

Recent Reading 8

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Jason Matthews [2013]:  Red Sparrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). A debut spy-thriller by a 33-year CIA clandestine service veteran,  this book is well-written and gripping, with plot twists that are unexpected yet plausible.    The book has placed the author in the same league of Le Carre and McCarry, and I recommend the book strongly.   As so often with espionage and crime fiction, the main weakness is the characterization – the players are too busy doing things in the world for us to have a good sense of their personalities, especially so for the minor characters.  Part of the reason for us having this sense, I think, is the sparsity of dialog through which we could infer a sense of personhood for each player.    And the main character, Nate Nash, gets pushed aside in the second half of the book  by the machinations of the other players.  In any case, the ending of the book allows us to meet these folks again.    Finally, I found the recipes which end each chapter an affectation, but that may be me.  The author missed a chance for a subtle allusion with solo meal cooked by General Korchnoi, which I mis-read as pasta alla mollusc, which would have made it the same as the last meal of William Colby.

 

  •  Henry A. Cumpton [2012]:  The Art of Intelligence:  Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York:  Penguin).   A fascinating account of a career in espionage.    Crumpton reports an early foreign assignment in the 1980s in an African country which had had a war of liberation war, where the US had a close working relationship with the revolutionary Government of the country:  The only candidates that seem to fit this bill are Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique.  Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF Government was so close to the USA in its early years that the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had only two groups dealing with counter-subversion:  a group seeking to counter South African subversion and a group seeking to counter Soviet subversion.  Indeed, so great was the fear of Soviet subversion that the USSR was not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for the first two years following independence in 1980.

The book has four very interesting accounts:

1. Crumpton’s perceptive reflections on the different cultures of CIA and FBI, which are summarized in this post.

2.  The account of the preparations needed to design, build, deploy, and manage systems of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in Afghanistan.  The diverse and inter-locking challenges – technical, political, strategic, managerial, economic, human, and logistic – are reminiscent of those involved in creating CIA’s U2 spy-plane program in the 1950s (whose leader Richard Bissell I saluted here).

3.  The development of integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for tactical anti-terrorist operations management in the early 2000s.  What I find interesting is that this took place a decade after mobile telecommunications companies were using GIS for tactical planning and management of engineering and marketing operations.  Why should the Government be so far behind?

4. An account of CIA’s anti-terrorist programs prior to 11 September 2011, including the monitoring and subversion of Al-Qaeda.  Given the extent of these programmes, it is now clear why CIA embarked on such an activist role following 9/11.  George Tenet remarked at the time (in his memoirs) that such a role would mean crossing a threshold for CIA, but until Crumpton’s book, I never understood why this enhanced  role had been accepted at the time by US political leaders and military leaders.  From Crumpton’s account, the reason for their acceptance was that CIA was the only security agency ready to step up quickly at the time.

  • Paul Vallely [2013]:  Pope Francis:  Untying the Knots. (London, UK:  Bloomsbury).  A fascinating account of the man who may revolutionize the Catholic Church.    Francis, first as Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ and then as Archbishop and Cardinal, appears to have moved from right to left as he aged, to the point where he now embraces a version of liberation theology.   His role during the period of Argentina’s military junta of Jorge Videla is still unclear – he seems to have bravely hidden and help-escape leftist political refugees and activists, while at the same time, through dismissing them from Church protection, making other activitists targets of military actions.

Bergoglio seems to understand something his brother cardinals appear not to – that the Catholic Church (and other fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations) are not seen by the majority of people in the West any longer as places of saintliness, spiritual goodness, or charity, but as bastions of bigotry, irrationally opposed to individual freedom and to human happiness and fulfilment.  In its campaigns against gay marriage rights, euthenasia, abortion, and other private moral issues, the Church opposes free will not only of its own clergy and lay members, but also of other citizens who are not even Catholic adherents.   Such campaigns to limit the freedoms and rights of non-believers are presumptious, to say the least.  The Catholic Church does a great deal of unremarked good in the world, work which is sullied and undermined by the political campaigns and bigoted public statements of its leaders.

The book is poorly written, with lots of repetition, and several  chapters reprising the entire argument of the book, as if they had been stand-along newspaper articles.   The author clearly thinks his readers have the minds of gold-fish, since interview subjects are introduced repeatedly with descriptions, as if for the first time.

The photo shows one of the demonstrations of the The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, held weekly since 1977  to protest the junta’s kidnap, torture, and murder of Argentinian citizens.   We should not forget that the military regimes of South America, including the Argentinian junta of Videla, were supported not only by the Vatican and most local Catholic clergy (with some brave exceptions), but also by the US intelligence services, including during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

Influential Books and Films

This is a list of non-fiction books, films and TV series which have greatly influenced me – making me see the world differently or act in it differently.  They are listed chronologically according to when I first encountered them.

  • 2022 – Stewart Copeland [2009]: Strange Things Happen: A Life with “The Police”, Polo and Pygmies.
  • 2022 – Young Royals. TV Series, Netflix Sweden.
  • 2019 – Mary Le Beau (Inez Travers Cunningham Stark Boulton, 1888-1958) [1956]:  Beyond Doubt: A Record of Psychic Experience.   
  • 2019 – Zhores A Medvedev [1983]: Andropov: An Insider’s Account of Power and Politics within the Kremlin.
  • 2016 – Lafcadio Hearn [1897]: Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East. London, UK: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company Limited.
  • 2015 – Benedict Taylor [2011]: Mendelssohn, Time and Memory. The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form. (Cambridge UP)
  • 2010 – Hans Kundnani [2009]: Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. (London, UK: Hurst and Company)
  • 2009 – J. Scott Turner [2007]:  The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. (Harvard UP) (Mentioned here.)
  • 2008 – Stefan Aust [2008]: The Baader-Meinhof Complex. (Bodley Head)
  • 2008 – Pierre Delattre [1993]:  Episodes. (St. Paul, MN, USA:  Graywolf Press)
  • 2006 – Mark Evan Bonds [2006]: Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. (Princeton UP)
  • 2006 – Kyle Gann [2006]: Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. (UCal Press)
  • 2005 – Clare Asquith [2005]:  Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  (Public Affairs)
  • 2004 – Igal Halfin [2003]: Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard UP)
  • 2001 – George Leonard [2000]: The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei.
  • 2000 – Stephen E. Toulmin [1990]:  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1999 – Michel de Montaigne [1580-1595]:  Essays.
  • 1997 – James Pritchett [1993]:  The Music of John Cage.  (Cambridge UP, UK)
  • 1996 – George Fowler [1995]:  Dance of a Fallen Monk: A Journey to Spiritual Enlightenment. (New York:  Doubleday)
  • 1995 – Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch [1992]:  Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.   (New York: Bantam Books)
  • 1995 – Jon Kabat-Zinn [1994]: Wherever You Go, There You Are.
  • 1995 – Charlotte Joko Beck [1993]: Nothing Special: Living Zen.
  • 1993 – George Leonard [1992]: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
  • 1992 – Henry Adams [1907/1918]: The Education.
  • 1990 – Trevor Leggett [1987]:  Zen and the Ways.  (Tuttle)
  • 1989 – Grant McCracken [1988]:  Culture and Consumption.
  • 1989 – Teresa Toranska [1988]:  Them:  Stalin’s Polish Puppets.  Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska. (HarperCollins) (Mentioned here.)
  • 1988 – Henry David Thoreau [1865]:  Cape Cod.
  • 1988 – Rupert Sheldrake [1988]: The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.
  • 1988 – Dan Rose [1987]:  Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. (U Penn Press)
  • 1987 – Susan Sontag [1966]: Against Interpretation. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • 1987 – Gregory Bateson [1972]: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (U Chicago Press)
  • 1987 – Jay Neugeboren [1968]:  Reflections at Thirty.
  • 1985 – Esquire Magazine Special Issue [June 1985]: The Soul of America.
  • 1985 – Brian Willan [1984]: Sol Plaatje: A Biography.
  • 1982 – John Miller Chernoff [1979]: African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1981 – Walter Rodney [1972]: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.  (London: Bogle-L’Overture Publications)
  • 1980 – James A. Michener [1971]: Kent State: What happened and Why.
  • 1980 – Andre Gunder Frank [1966]:  The Development of Underdevelopment.  (Monthly Review Press)
  • 1980 – Paul Feyerabend [1975]: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
  • 1979 – Aldous Huxley [1945]:  The Perennial Philosophy.
  • 1978 – Christmas Humphreys [1949]:  Zen Buddhism.
  • 1977 – Raymond Smullyan [1977]:  The Tao is Silent.
  • 1976 – Bertrand Russell [1951-1969]:  The Autobiography.  (London: George Allen & Unwin)
  • 1975 – Jean-Francois Revel [1972]:  Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun.
  • 1974 – Charles Reich [1970]: The Greening of America.
  • 1973 – Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich [1953]:  Yoga and Health. (NY:  Harper)
  • 1972 – Robin Boyd [1960]: The Australian Ugliness.