Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log, August 2019
By Tal Cohen Sunday, 08 September 2019
I’ve read one translation of Thucydides a month ago, and another one this month: The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler, based on a modernized version of the translation by Richard Crawley.
  I found this translation to be more flowing, but the choice of terminology is sometimes less appropriate (“The People” and “the aristocracy”, vs Jowett’s “the popular party” and “the oligarchy”).
  The second read allowed me to focus on the early parts of specific “plot threads” that aren't easy to recognize as important when they first appear. A great example is the exploits of Alcibiades. That guy was amazing -- or rather, the fact that nobody put him to the sword at any of so many different occasions is amazing. First playing for Athens, betraying and humiliating the Spartan emissaries in a manner that prevented peace, he then escaped trial at Athens and convinced the Spartans to accept him as an adviser -- causing huge damage to the Athenians; and when the Spartans sentenced him to death, he defected to the Persians, now damaging the Spartans badly; and then Athens took him back, only to be eventually exiled (rather than executed).
  It is amazing that all this aggressive fighting takes place at the same time that the height of Greek culture is produced: Sophocles, Euriphides, Plato, and others produced some of their greatest works during this very war (and others that followed). This brings to mind Orson Wells’s words: “You know what the fellow said -- in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace -- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Two Greek plays: Euriphides’s Herakles Sophocles’s Women of Trachis, both translated by Yaacov Shabtai. Reading these plays while also reading the histories of the era sheds so much additional light; for example, Herakles begins with old Amphitryon, Megara, and the children finding shelter in a temple, where Lycus cannot touch them -- and the theme of fleeing for shelter in a temple is common in Thucydides.
  The opening lines of Women of Trachis may sound trivial today, but they are still a moving opening: “Men have a saying established long ago: / no one can judge the life of any mortal / as good or bad until that man is dead. / But in my case, though I have not yet reached / the land of Hades, I know all too well / how miserable and difficult life is.” (This is Ian Johnston’s translation, which, while good, is not as good as Shabtai’s Hebrew rendering, I’m afraid.)
  Shabtai’s appendices to his various translations are often tiring, but for Herakles, the third appendix is a wonderful idyll by Theocritus, about a women casting witchcraft spells to make her lover return (and the connection to Herakles and his fate is clear).

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. The title explains what the book is about, and the prologue made me think that I should expect nothing new. I was actually surprised by how under-informed about that problem I really was. Some of the new things that I’ve learned, and new perspectives I’ve gained, include the concept of “the great risk shift” (a term coined by Jacob Hacker); the difference between “critic” and “thought leader” (I will never think about TED talks the same way again); and how modern philanthropy isn't even a partial solution, it’s part of the problem. Simplified to the extreme, it allows the rich to think that “doing more good” gives them a pass on “doing less harm”.
  The book only hints at the solutions, although some of them should be patently obvious to any attentive reader.
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