Revisiting the Harvard Classics: day 2

School day poems of John Milton. Written at the age of 16 years old, Milton showed promise of being a future poet. This section was found in volume 4.
On the morning of Christ Nativity brought me back to the things I needed to read for religion class. 13 years of religion class is difficult to forget and hearing those words again, regardless of their context, brought back memories from long ago. These days Christianity has a new meaning for me. The stories and mythology were finally explained to me as an adult and not an idiot for once. I don’t know why the church always treated people as if they were simple minded and couldn’t handle the meaning behind what was being said, it took a clinical psychologist to explain the old testament in a way that didn’t make it appear to be a huge pile of infantile crap wrapped in a diaper. So maybe there is something more out there then we could ever understand, things that science doesn’t have answers for. Milton had a talent for poetry, a skill he clearly worked at. Some would say that he was blessed and that the talent came from somewhere else, I would like to think he had the skill and focus to improve something he enjoyed.

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The Harvard Classics Revisited: The Odyssey

I went beyond reading The Odyssey when I pulled this one off the shelf, wanting to understand it as I heard the story, I also downloaded a few of the Great Courses about the book. Whether or not Homer existed is still up for debate but one thing is clear, if he did exist, he was the first person to write down the tale of The Odyssey but he is not the first person to tell it. It was an oral history and handed down through oral story telling until pen touched paper.
The story is told in an odd way, starting out with Odysseus’ home and the situation with his wife and son. The king is gone and everyone wants to replace him. Once that scene is set, we go back to Odysseus where he is stuck on an island with a beautiful goddess and yet he wants to return home. The gods do not make it an easy trip for him and by the time he returns he has been gone for 20 years. Odysseus has to pretend to be a homeless beggar in his own home as he plots the bloodbath that will take place. This tale has been retold time and time again. Look at The Count of Monte Cristo or Oh Brother Where Art Thou for example. In these cases, the hero is gone from home and has to fight to return to his rightful place. The desire is home and it is here the reader learns what is important in life. Odysseus could remain on the island having sex for all eternity with a beautiful goddess that will never grow old but that is not the path of man. It may sound grand as a young man in your twenties but when you are older a little pillow talk is desirable.
There has been some talk about the Iliad being left out of the Harvard Classics and there is no record as to why that is. Even with Don Quixote it is published as part 1 and there is no part 2. Perhaps the Odyssey had the message that was desired and the whole story was not needed for the lesson to be learned. There have been several books written about Homer’s work and it would appear everyone took something different from the tale. There was an episode of Parts Unknown where Anthony Bourdain went to the Greek Isles and could see the places talked about in the classics. He made the statement “It was a tall tale. Something you would tell the wife when you have been gone for so long. Oh the sirens were hideous. All the women were ugly. I couldn’t wait to get back to you.” To which Tony’s host replied “you think he made it up?”
Is there any point in arguing if the Odyssey is true? I doubt the Greeks told the story because it was a history book. There is something more to be taken from the Odyssey and here is what I found. Duty comes at a cost. There is a difference between what is important in life and what life demands of you. Be careful who you are rude to. Slaughter your enemies until none are left standing. I’m sure there is much more to take from the text but this was just off the top of my head.
The odyssey is one of those stories I will likely go back to learning more about in the future. It seems to be one of those stories that always has more to tell. While I had interest in reading this book as a kid, I grew disinterested by high school and it wasn’t until recently that I thought about picking it up again. Like most books there is a time and place in one’s life to truly enjoy something and before now I don’t know if that would have happened. Like any tale I think it is filled with lies and half-truths. Was Odysseus riding around the seas with his men on constant booty calls. To the victors go the spoils and I think he was living it up, maybe too long. Of course, he is the hero of the tale and while we can speculate what was really going on, we will never know. The story is one to learn from, focus, stay the course, family first, don’t tempt the gods, and the list goes on. Should everyone read this? Yes, when they are ready. I find this is one of those books that people will not seek out but it will find you instead.

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Returning to the Harvard Classics

A few months ago, I bought an incomplete set of the Harvard Classics. This set of books includes 51 volumes and also has a second version The Harvard Classics of Fiction with an additional 20 volumes in that set. I was attracted to the set from the beginning knowing that most people who attend Harvard never touch any of these books. It is rare if anyone reads these days and even more rare if they pick up something regarded as a classic. The set was one volume away from being complete and I knew a place that was likely to have the missing link.
Lowry’s book store is outside of town in Three Rivers Michigan. Across the street is a brewery I like to visit once a month for their delicious beer and burger of the month. On a visit yesterday I rummaged through the shelves and continued to see complete sets of the five-foot stack, a nickname for the series, and eventually came to a place where random versions of sets were piled together and sold in individual volumes. Sitting in a pile, at the bottom of course, was volume 20, Dante’s Inferno. I am already familiar with this text, growing up catholic and hearing the story every year, Dante’s Inferno is nothing new to me but the set was complete. I could move ahead with reading the set and not worry about missing anything as it was intended on being read.
The set that I bought was the original 1909 publication of Dr Eliot’s five-foot shelf. Dr Eliot was the president of the University at the time and was challenged to put together the stack of books when he made claims that a liberal education could be attained by reading 15 minutes a day from certain books. Of course, the books had to be selected and a year later Eliot released his list and P. F. Collier and Son published the books selling 350,000 sets. Later the shelf of fiction would be added.
There is one other blog that has tackled the Harvard classics, Beer and Trembling completed 52 weeks of reading the classics in one year while also doing beer reviews at the same time. I don’t know how long this will take. I’m not sure I can keep up with the schedule of one week per book. Considering that some of them are longer like Wealth of Nations or The Voyage of the Beagle there will be larger gaps between entrees. Still, there are a few books that I have already read and while I will start this project with those books reading the rest of the series is a task that will take a good portion of my time.
Why even bother with it? What is the point? There is a long list of writers that I admire and while I can go on and on about how their books have influenced everything from my life to writing style I have to admit that they all have one thing in common. They all grew up reading or studying the classics at one time or another. Sure, they read each other’s works but for a certain time period the only thing they had available were the classics that came before. When this list was created Hemingway wasn’t known, Fitzgerald wouldn’t be published for another ten years, Hunter S. Thompson read the previous writers but he also grew up reading the classics.
I don’t know how much this will change anything, if reading the classics will make me into a better person or change my views on life, but it is worth a shot and you don’t learn anything by not trying something new.

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Time for Plan B

I had a plan for this year, one that would hopefully put me back where I was a few years ago but times are changing and I am having trouble keeping up. I spent weeks coming home from work and recording an audiobook for Audible in the hopes of reaching a market that was out of my reach before. I enjoy audiobooks, hell for the most part it’s the only way I get to read these days. I spent more grueling hours editing the material, making sure it fit the specifications for the site and in the end, there were issues with the files. This isn’t the end of the story.
I still have hours of material that is waiting to be heard. This Sunday some friends and I will be recording the first of what could be many podcasts. It’s a chance to hang out, have some fun, talk about what whatever we want and plug our stuff in the meantime. Originally, I thought we would have to go through SoundCloud, an expensive site that I had used in the past and manually connect the podcast to Apple, Spotify and all the other sites, a huge pain in the butt. Then someone on Instagram pointed me towards Anchor.fm where they connect you with sponsors and connect your podcast to all the other outlets for listeners. In the end dear reader, you ended up with not one but two podcasts for your future enjoyment.
I started the Typing Piper Classics podcast where every week I upload a new segment of my audiobooks for your listening pleasure. The first episode is available now. I’m starting out with Daisy the book that I spend so many hours recording. I have a backlog of material at the moment which means I can focus on writing new material in the meantime for this blog and Amazon. I hope that you will join me on this new adventure and maybe something special will become of it. Who knows, in the future if things go well, I can afford to have some professionally produced audiobooks created in the future.
Also, Golden will be released on July 1 on Amazon as an eBook and in print. It’s a Novella length memoir and if you have been reading this blog then you might have already read it. There isn’t that much new material, the original post have been cleaned up and I will be happy when I have a printed copy sitting on my shelf at home. Daisy and Motherf*cker, my year as a degenerate cook, are still scheduled to come out early June.
While all of this is happening, I will continue to work on the 5-year anniversary editions of the After the Day series and those will start being turned into serialized podcast later this year. My schedule is full and if you don’t see me on here for stretches of time know that I am likely working on something new. Outlines have been written for an upcoming trilogy, working title is After America. My plan for this is to have the whole trilogy written when it is released. I figure if people can binge watch Netflix why wouldn’t they want to binge read a new series? These will be longer books than what I have been producing lately so don’t expect it any time soon. Know that there will be material coming out in the meantime but something big is one the way.
-Matthew Gilman

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Reading the Classics

A few months ago, I purchased a set of the Harvard Classics, also known at as the five-foot reading list. When the books are stacked, they are five feet tall. So far I have read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and the Dialogues of Plato. There are 50 books all together but well over a hundred titles that fill the volumes.
There are two books that cause me to cringe when I think about reading them. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and The Origin of Species by Darwin are some of the longest titles in the series and could be some of the dullest reading I will ever experience. Did Adam Smith consider how to make economics fun when he wrote his book, I doubt it. Stuck on a boat in the Pacific Ocean would be the best place for someone like Darwin to write about some birds out of boredom and accidently write a classic.
I always hated required reading when I was in school but I will point out that having high school students reading old English isn’t the best way to introduce the classics or good literature for that matter. I could not stand The Scarlett Letter and As I Lay Dying was only readable to those who were familiar with southern white trash. I met some of these characters later in life and had moments where I thought “oh I get it now.” I remember thinking to myself that no one could be that dumb and then life proved me wrong. As for the Scarlett Letter I saw more than my fair share of affairs over the years and the only thing missing was the culture of shame that didn’t exist. This kind of behavior had become a new normal in certain work environments.
In order for a great book to have staying power it has to be written in a way that it will hold up a hundred years after it was written. I often think about Gatsby for an example of this, having known men to fake their lifestyles in order to attract women who were not really into them. Since the Harvard Classics were printed in 1909 Gatsby is not on the list along with all the other classics written during the 20th century. I’m sure I can find a list for those later on.
Some of the classics I am having a difficult time with include poetry and plays, something I always considered separate from literature. I can think of a handful of writers who were successful play writes during their lives, A.A. Milne, Tennessee Williams, and Oscar Wilde all paid their bills by writing plays and having them be a success in the local theaters. For most of these men their fame was later remembered from other literary works like The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Winnie the Pooh series.
When I recently read The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter, I learned how Tolkien and Lewis used poetry as a mental exercise for writing. Publishing such works was still common and people could make a living at it if they had talent. These days the readers don’t exist and writing such things is viewed at the intellectual version of writing rap lyrics in the ghetto, except less successful. While I say all of these horrible things about poetry I will admit there is an advantage to those who do it. It will expand vocabulary as you search for the right word for a line. There is a sense of rhythm that is missing from todays books and the only writers who still have this skill are slowly dying off. The symbolism and descriptions used in poetry is something that is missing from todays books. When a person writes a line such as “that morning he was dehydrated and his pee was the same color it would be an hour after taking a multivitamin” they could use a course or two of poetry.
I will eventually read The Wealth of Nations but I will always have in the back of my mind knowing that Smith lived with his mother, without a job, and was catered daily by her as he wrote. He was living the life of royalty with a serf caring for his needs while writing about capitalism. It would be like Ron Jeremy writing a book about celibacy and having it become a huge hit. The most interesting thing about Adam Smith’s book is that it is regarded as the standard for economics, and it would appear he was very bad at it and this was the only beacon of success he had in his life. I’m sure at some point an adult man still living with their parents, playing World of Warcraft or Minecraft, could write the next big book on relationships or personal responsibility. It could happen, I suppose.

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Liar, Liar, pants on F.I.R.E.

If you are one of the people who are surfing the internet looking for information on how to retire early then you have found articles and websites dedicated to the F.I.R.E. movement, Financially Independent Retire Early. Most of these stories feature people who saved a good portion of their income and had enough after a certain period of time to leave their jobs and tour the world or live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere while typing their financial manifestoes.
The biggest lie these websites love to pass along is that anyone can do this. This is the same mentality that had Mitt Romney telling reporters that he thought middle class started at $250,000. The people who have accomplished this goal are in the upper middle class and those who do something similar under that threshold are referred to as bums, no debt but living in poverty.
The other aspect of these stories that people tend to overlook is the obvious advantage that these people have over the majority of the population, inherited wealth, no student loan debt, six figure salaries, or households with two six figure incomes. The message is always the same afterwards, anyone can do this. Not everyone is like you.
I fall into the category of people who make around $35,000 a year. I have good benefits and no debt except for a laptop and a house. The laptop will be paid off in a few months. I am on schedule to pay off the house in 5-6 years, but when it comes to savings there is about $10,000 in various accounts and other assets far from what would be needed to retire early. On my income, the odds of having enough to retire even at 65 is about 1 in a bazillion. The sad reality is that 52% of Americans don’t have enough in savings to pay an unexpected $500 bill and only 62% of the population that can work does work. That means 38% of working age individuals are either retired, disabled, unemployed, or choose not to work. Translate the numbers into what it really means and most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck with no future in sight.
Is early retirement truly feasible for the average American, no. to say otherwise is to feed hope to those that are already seeking answers to a better life. Does this mean that Americans shouldn’t try to better their situations and live a more meaningful life, no. There are resources available to live a financially secure life even on a lower income. It takes some work, but if one really tries hard enough, they can get out of debt and take control of their lives where others have failed. Dave Ramsey has his famous book Total Money Makeover that is very effective if one follows the principles in it.
Stressed caused by finances can cause people to make bad choices and spiral further into debt instead of climbing out. So, making changes to better one’s situation or finding a solution to that feeling of hopelessness is important. This article isn’t saying there isn’t something to learn from these people that retired early, good for them. What I am saying is that here and there we can find things to take from their experiences to make our lives better. For example, Mr. Money Mustache was able to retire early, at the age of 30. While this is impossible for most of us, what we can learn is how he is able to live on only $25,000 a year with a household of 4. He rides a bike to work and other places around town. His house is paid off, something most of us neglect doing because payments are “low.” He eats at home most days and the wife and him rarely go out for drinks or dinner.
While it may appear appropriate to blame others for our situation, there is one thing we all can take away from these stories, the responsibility of our personal situations comes down to us and how we handle it. We should, under no circumstances, wait for some financial messiah to come save us. We are the masters of our own choices and when we eat out, buy some luxury item we can’t afford or buy a house that is out of our price range we are the ones who put ourselves in that situation. We can’t blame the realtor for telling us we can afford it, or the car salesman for telling us that a seven-year payment plan is really good for an automobile. We are the ones who should know better. Let’s face it, if we really wanted to stick it to the man we would live frugally and watch as the stock market took a big dump in everyone’s portfolios and laugh as people in three pieces suits applied for part time jobs at the local Starbucks and asked if they have benefits for new employees.

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After the Day for the last time

This book saved my life. Poorly written, and breaking barriers no one wanted to see broken, what started out as a way to kill long lonely nights turned into a gateway to freedom that I needed. Five years ago, I put a book on Amazon before knowing what it was. It was raw, filled with misspelled words, bad grammar, and horrible dialogue and somehow it sold.
At that time in my life I was divorce, living alone, dating life had a bunch of downs and no ups, and debt was pulling me down. I had branched out into various hobbies, things that I had wanted to do early on in life but held back by different things which no longer influenced my life. Included in these hobbies was writing.
One of the first things I did after my wife and I split was going to best buy and picking up a laptop to write on. It sat in a closet for a year before I took it out and started pecking the keys. I had many adventures after my thirtieth birthday. Fishing, hunting, and gardening took up a good portion of my free time. Once hunting season was over and winter was in full throttle I was stuck inside, without a television and the radio my only outside friend. Sitting in my dining room with a bottle of red wine and a pipe filled with captain black gold I started to write a short story. I had lost track of where it was going and so I wrote another. I continued this process until I had three or our stories in front of me and realized I was writing them all in the same world.
The last couple of days have taken me back to that time. Sitting at a dining room table like I do now and listening to classical music from NPR, I go over my first novel and rewrite the work for the last time. I found the original version, the one I uploaded with all of its horrible flaws, before the suggestions, edits, and critics took over. Starting from scratch I’m turning it into what it could have been all along and something that is truly mine again. I have learned some lessons along the way. Don’t look at sales figures. Don’t read the reviews. Don’t let people distract you with other projects that are not your own. Drink less beer. Write drunk. Edit sober… sometimes. So maybe I haven’t learned my lessons on a lot of things or maybe some of those things are myths to begin with. You don’t have to always enjoy what it is that you are doing but it helps.
As I go through these pages and play with the words, slowly transforming this thing into something else entirely, I know that I will still come back to it a few times. Reading an audiobook will point out a few more changes along the way and that is okay. After this year I will no longer come back to this book. My life has changed since that time and I have written several things since then that nobody wants to read or talk about. After the Day has turned into my white whale and it is time to put it down for good.

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