Essay Review – “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin

This essay was referenced to in a podcast that I heard a few weeks ago. The podcast was discussing the difference between public intellectuals and modern day experts of specific areas. The podcast referenced a famous line from this essay to explain the difference: “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’”

I was fascinated by this and immediately read up this essay. It was, to put it mildly, not quite what I was expecting. To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting in the first place. Perhaps more insights from ancient Greece, or a detailed explanation of whether it is better to be a hedgehog or a fox.

What I got instead was a look at the intellectual mammoth that Leo Tolstoy was, and his thoughts about history. The essay is fascinating, not only because it captures some of the challenges with teaching history today, but it is also a lesson in history itself because it broadly discusses the tumultuous history of Europe in the 18th century.

What was very interesting was that some of Tolstoy’s concerns with how history is taught is very reflective of how we think about it even now. Sample this:

‘history will never reveal to us what connections there are, and at what times, between science, art and morality, between good and evil, religion and the civic virtues. What it will tell us (and that incorrectly) is where the Huns came from, where they lived, who laid the foundations of their power, etc.’

and:

‘History is nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles, cluttered up with a mass of unnecessary figures and proper names.’

And why was Tolstoy so concerned about learning from history? Well, because he was somewhat like Elon Musk, in that he believed in breaking things down to the first principles and  living by them. Tolstoy believed that the only way to live is to find out the science and the principles that apply to humanity and live by the values and ideas that emerge out of them. And the only way to learn these ideas is by studying history itself.

The essay then goes on to trace why Tolstoy thought in this manner, especially when he was writing his epic War And Peace. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher author of this essay, masterfully shines a light on Tolstoy’s correspondence and his research to try and find the answers that might benefit humanity as a whole.

This is a beautiful, if academic and densely filled with knowledge, essay that I was glad that I bumped into. Perfect reading for a weekend.

Read more about ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ on Goodreads. Buy a copy here.

Title: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Author: Isaiah Berlin

First Published: 1953

Number of Pages: 96

Price: Paperback – Rs. 599 / Kindle – Rs. 500 (Amazon.in)

My Rating: 8/10

(Disclosure: If you buy any book by clicking on the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

 

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Book Review – “The Secret Adversary” by Agatha Christie

At Blossom’s Book House in Bangalore last year, I was a little wary of picking up this book because up until then, of all the Agatha Christie novels, I had mostly just read the Poirot and the Miss Marple stories. Little did I know that I would enjoy this book just as much as the others, given that it read like the taut story-line of a Hitchcock thriller.

But before we begin, a short history lesson. The year is 1915, right in the middle of the First World War. The USA hasn’t joined the War yet, but tremors have been felt and there is a general state of anxiety and intrigue. In the midst of this, the RMS Lusitania is sailing from America towards England, when it is torpedoed by a German submarine. The ship sinks, killing 1198 civilians on board. The sinking of the Lusitania causes outrage not only in England but also in America, as she was also carrying 198 Americans who do not survive the attack.

Right, back to the novel. The prologue starts on board the Lusitania, minutes after it has been torpedoed. A quiet, confidential looking American man, acknowledging that women and children are being asked to get on to lifeboats first and that he himself might not make it to shore, approaches a young girl. He asks her to safeguard a document which he assures her would be very harmful to American and British interests if it were to fall into the wrong hands. He does warn her to be very careful as he might have been followed. The girl nervously looks around her as the man disappears into the crowd.

Fast forward to a few years later: the war has ended and we meet two happy-go-lucky friends, Tommy and Tuppence, on the streets of London. They’ve been friends since childhood and had reconnected a few years earlier. Since then, they have hit upon hard times. Over a cup of tea, the duo decide to form “The Young Adventurer’s Ltd.” as a means to look for employment from people who might want Tommy & Tuppence to undertake dangerous activities on their behalf. This is when a man approaches and engages them to try and find the girl from the Lusitania, who we learn has gone missing since.

The pair use their wits to try and track down the girl, all the while trying to stay ahead and clear of an organisation which is also trying to find the girl and the document. The organisation is headed by the mythical Mr. Brown whom no one has seen, but whose sinister presence is felt everywhere. Do Tommy and Tuppence find the girl and the documents? Or is Mr. Brown, who looms like a shadow over his organisation, able to use his cunning to get the papers and thereby attempt to destabilise various European governments?

For someone who was sceptical when starting this book, I was thoroughly enjoying myself towards the end of this old school spy suspense. Sure, the dialogue of the characters is a little dated (the book was first published in 1922, almost a century ago now), but that adds its own charm. Also, the early style of writing also confirmed my notion that this was one of the first few detective novels that Agatha Christie had written.

My favourite character in the book is the girl Tuppence. She is spunky, sharp and trying to break the shackles of the good Victorian behaviour prescribed for the girls of her time. She doesn’t let Tommy treat her as if she is the gentler sex and has a retort ready for all his verbal jabs.

Although I could guess the identity of the villain mid way through the novel, the whodunit nature of the book kept the suspense building right till the last chapter. If you like thrillers which evoke the sense of the black-and-white Hitchcock spy films, definitely give this a read.

Snippets:

  • “(Father) has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts and smoking are immoral.” I would be amused to see what Tuppence’s father thought of the world today.
  • Every revolution has had its honest men. They are soon disposed off afterwards.”
  • I’m guessing Agatha Christie wanted to make it really clear that she felt Americans are full of vim and vigour; more than once she uses the word ‘hustle’ in reference to an American gentleman, and a few pages later, this happens: “Julius,” said Tuppence firmly, “stop walking up and down. It makes me giddy. Sit down in that arm-chair, and tell me the whole story with as few fancy turns of speech as possible.”

 

Read more about “The Secret Adversary” on Goodreads. Buy the book here.

Title: The Secret Adversary

Author: Agatha Christie

First Published: 1922

Number of Pages: 220

Price: Paperback – Rs. 265 / Kindle – Rs. 49 (Amazon.in)

My rating: 9 out of 10

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)

Book Review – “The Woman In White” by Wilkie Collins

Book: The Woman In White

Author: Wilkie Collins

Publisher: Penguin

First published: 1860

Number of Pages: 736

Price: Rs. 194 (Flipkart) / Rs. 224 (Amazon) / FREE (Kindle)*

My rating: 5/5

There is a certain happiness in ‘discovering’ a good book. Have you ever stumbled across a book on a shelf at a bookstore and picked it up on a whim and hours later, having read a couple of pages, you realise what good luck it was to have taken the bet?

This is precisely what I’d felt a couple of years ago when I’d stumbled across The Moonstone while browsing through Project Gutenberg. A cracking good plot set in Victorian England, mysterious characters from halfway across the world, a whodunit; The Moonstone had kept me hooked till the very last page. Add to this the fact that the book was written and first published in 1868, and I was even more impressed.

And so, when a couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Woman In White, I did so with great interest. I am pleased to report the book has exceeded all my expectations.

The book begins one late evening when one Mr. Walter Hartright is returning home to his place of lodgings in London from meeting his mother and sister who live on the outskirts of the city. The road is dark and lonely as it is close to the midnight hour when suddenly, he feels a hand upon his shoulder. He whirls around to see a beautiful young woman, dressed completely in white, looking at him. She asks him if he can point her to some place from where she can get a cab. He volunteers to walk with her till she can find one. They have a short conversation during their walk together which only mystifies young Hartright further. Soon after she gets a cab and leaves for a destination she does not reveal to him, he overhears a couple of men looking for her, saying that she had escaped from an asylum!

You would think his encounter with the lady ended here, but the mysterious presence continues to haunt him a couple of days later when Walter travels to north of England in his professional capacity. How Walter unravels the truth about the woman in white and their collective experiences forms the rest of the novel.

What impressed me most about this book was its suspense. I later discovered that this was a natural thing to happen, since the novel originally appeared in serialised form in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. If a book written over 150 years ago still manages to keep an entirely different generation’s reader hooked on to every chapter, I say ‘Job well done’.

The language used in this book is beautiful. The descriptions of Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick’s beauty, the charming country houses and their estates and even of some vast expanses of land often transport you to England as it would have been over a century ago. Add to that Walter Hartright’s beautiful confession of being in love and you wish he would go on just that little bit longer.

And how can I forget what made this book’s latter half the most enjoyable to me. In Count Fosco lives one of the most cunning and powerful villains I have come across in literature. The climactic scene, set in one long night at the Italian Count’s London residence, is full of tension. One can almost hear menace dripping whenever he speaks. The Count is very high on my list of favourite villains.

If I can fault this book at all, then it would be it’s length, which does seem too long towards the end. But this is a minor irritant compared to the joys over the couple of hours I spent reading this book.

A fantastic book, which I highly recommend. Read it alone at home on a stormy night at your own peril!

*Although the book is available as a free download, I highly recommend buying a copy of the Penguin classic which has a beautiful cover and seems well worth the price tag.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about The Woman In White on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

(Disclosure: If you buy the book by clicking on any of the Amazon links above, you will NOT get charged extra. However, I will get a small commission, 100% of which will go to charity.)