Those of you who've been hanging around Weasel Words since the beginning will have forgotten that back in February, I put up a partial review of Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy . And, since I'm mentioning it again, you've probably guessed that I've finally finished it, some six months later. Before I go on to talk about the book itself, I thought I'd take a few moments to talk about the change in my reading habits that was necessitated so that I might finish the book within my lifetime.

Up until I finished college, it was my practice to only read one book at a time -- since all the books I read for optional pleasure were fiction, reading multiple books at once was pointless. If I'd tried to read two at once (which I didn't, having no real desire to do so), I'd only have gotten engrossed in one of them, read it to completion, and then returned to the other one, anyway.

But once the mandated non-fiction reading of college disappeared, I found myself more interested in reading non-fiction on my own time. The problem with non-fiction is that it's generally too long and involved to read quickly, and too deep to read when I want light reading. My practice of reading one book at a time quickly devolved into a practice of starting a non-fiction book, enjoying it for a while, then really really really wanting to read some light fiction as a break. The inability to fulfill this desire made the non-fiction seem like a chore, whereupon I'd realize that (not being in college) I had no reason to force myself to complete the chore, and would toss the non-fiction back on the shelf.

Obviously, that wouldn't do at all. So, I eventually relaxed my one-book-at-a-time practice to allow both a non-fiction book and a fiction book to be read at the same time. While this could have worked well in theory, in practice it devolved in the same way that reading two fiction books would have -- except that the book that got me caught up into finishing was almost invariably the fiction book. So, my non-fiction books tended to get ignored for months and months, until I finally returned them to my bookshelf in ignoble defeat; which is why my bookshelf has a dozen or so non-fiction books with bookmarks stuck in them around the page 100 mark.

Russell's intellectual history had suffered that same fate long before February -- my reading it then constituted a revival from the graveyard of half-read books -- and seemed fated to suffer that fate again after February. But a few months ago, in a sudden fit of literary genius, I hit upon a master stroke of an idea that solved my recurring problem.

The problem, I realized in a flash, was that I was treating each reading session as a separate choice, thereby making my reading habits operate in a winner-take-all, rather than proportional, fashion. With this insight, a solution became obvious. To expand:

Let's say that I want to read both a fiction book, and a non-fiction book, but that I slightly prefer the fiction book: I have a 60% desire to read the fiction, and a 40% desire to read the non-fiction. Now, the way I'd been handling things, I'd choose which book I wanted to read every single time I picked a book up off my coffee table for a session of reading. Since I almost always preferred the fiction (though only slightly), I'd end up reading it nearly 100% of the time. The solution was to pre-allocate my reading time in such a way that I no longer needed to make choices for each reading session, but allocated time between my fiction and non-fiction readings on a per-book, rather than per-session, basis.

This could have been as simple as reading fiction on odd days and non-fiction on even days, but I chose a different method, which possesses a significant advantage over that naive system. My method, simply, is to read my fiction book at all times except when I'm lying in bed before going to sleep. The extra advantage here is that I'm never kept reading late into the night because of a gripping plot turn. Not for me are bleary-eyed mornings caused by too-gripping fiction. No, my bedtime struggles now consist of forcing myself to put down a critique of Rousseau, an exposition of Hegel -- a much easier struggle.

Well. I confess that I never meant to give my full Treatise on the Methodology of Reading Non-Fiction here; let's chalk it up to the residual influence of the philosophical mindset. At any rate, let's move on to talking about Russell's book.

When last I wrote about it, I was still in the middle of the medieval philosophy section, which I finished to great satisfaction before moving on to the modern philosophy. I was a bit nervous about the transition: medieval philosophy is a comfortable subject for me, and one in which I have a reasonable background; modern philosophy is unfamiliar and scary. Or, I should more properly say, was unfamiliar and scary. After reading this book, I now have a reasonably solid overview of philosophy up until the early twentieth century (Russell is writing in 1943); in particular, my knowledge of 19th century philosophy -- the Romantics, Kant, Hegel, Marx, the Utilitarians -- is enormously improved from a state of total ignorance. I almost want to re-read Brust and Bull's Freedom and Necessity just to see how much more of it makes sense now.

I have nothing but praise for this book. It covers a broad ground with almost exactly the desired depth, is written lucidly and straightforwardly, mixes well the functions of description and analysis, and is pervaded throughout with an unmistakeable and penetrating intelligence. If the subject matter (or parts of it; the book tackles the history chronologically and contains each philosopher to their own chapter, so lends itself well to excerpt) interests you at all, I recommend this book highly.


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