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Bad Books, Of More Than One Kind

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So it’s very early in the morning, and I’m sitting at the computer at school having my office hours, which nobody will come to.

Until the last week, when they’ll all come at once.

But I’m here, and I’ve got work to do, and I should really go do it.  Instead, I’m writing this, because the work I have to do here isn’t really for today, and I can do it at home later.

Next to my chair I have my big black leather tote bag, and in that tote bag, aside from the usual things, like quizzes to hand back and the textbook, I have the book I’ve been trying to read for nearly two weeks now.

It’s driving me crazy.

The book is called Francis Bacon: The Major Works (including New Atlantis and the Essays), an Oxford World’s Classics mass market paperback edition edited by a man named Brian Vickers. 

I don’t know anything about Brian Vickers, and I couldn’t find the usual short bio in any of the usual places.  His acknowledgments are datelined Zurich, and include a thanks to a university in Tokyo.    I assume he’s a Brit of some kind and a native English speaker, getting that mostly from clues in his introductions and his notes.

But it’s not his biographical or his academic credentials or his institutional affiliations that I want to talk about here.

It’s the design of this book.

Mr. Vickers may not be responsible for the design of this book, and if he isn’t, I’ll have to apologize.

Because whoever is responsible for it should be banished from publishing forever.


This book includes within it several major works by Sir Francis Bacon, in whole and in part.

There is a general introduction at the front, which is fine.

There are also particular introductions to each of the works.

Then there are vocabulary notes–words the author thinks the reader may have trouble with, defined in modern terms.

Then there are translations of the Latin and Greek phrases Bacon often uses.

Then there are actual notes, little asides on things like the Great Chain of Being or the politics of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

See those last four things?

They’re all together at the back of the book.

The individual and particular introductions are at the start of the notes for each piece, yes.

But the other three things are all smushed together, so that every time you do want to consult a note, check your Latin translation, make sure of your vocabulary, it’s almost impossible to find what you’re looking for.

You’ll get the page number, in bold, and then a positive cascade of stuff, mostly undifferentiated.  If you’re looking to check a Latin translation, you have to dig through inches of vocabulary words that are often just plain silly.

I mean, is it really necessary to tell me what “lucky” means? 

But because the vocabulary notes seem to be aimed at a not very well read 4th grader, there are literally thousands of them. 

So you turn to the back, find the page number, and start wading.  The Latin translations are identified only by their first and last words (quoque…est) so they’re often buried almost entirely out of sight. 

By the time you find what you’re looking for, you’ve often forgotten what you were reading, and have to go back and start over to get the sense.

Most of the time, this doesn’t feel like reading. 

It’s more like some crazy obstacle course, made all the more miserable by the fact that I can tell that if I could find a way to navigate this thing without all the bumps and problems, I’d actually be interested in the material.

I don’t find Bacon the secular saint a lot of people like to pretend he is these days, the great innovator in the sciences, and all the rest of it.

I know too much about his personal life to admire him on any level.

But this is an authentic voice from an important time and place, and there have even been some surprises–for instance, the fact that he is a Humanist only in the Christian sense, and not only believed in God but believed in hunting heretics.

There’s something they don’t tell you when they give you Francis Bacon as a model of an early scientific skeptic.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t matter what he was.  This book never lets me relax long enough to think about him. 

And I end up, after a few hours, being physically uncomfortable. 

This is not a book to make a Sunday morning with Bach. 

I tried it, and I ended up with Beethoven at six a.m., sounding like doom.

I also realized that there was a time of day after which I just couldn’t go on with it.

So I did something I almost never do–I started another book, in the middle, to read at night.

That book is Louise Penny’s A Trick of the Light, a fair play mystery in a series featuring a chief homicide investigator with the Quebec Surete.

I picked the author because she and I were featured in a Publisher’s Weekly article on fair play mysteries (it was a while back), and I was of course interested.

It’s a very nice book indeed, with very engaging characters.

I’ll post a complete report when I’ve finished with it.

I’ll post a complete report on the Francis Bacon–if I finish with it.

The only things keeping me going at the moment are my internal conviction that I must always finish what I start, and the fact that there really is material in there I’m interested in.

Written by janeh

February 13th, 2013 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Bad Books, Of More Than One Kind'

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  1. The Bacon book sounds like one of those flat-pack assemble-it-yourself furniture pieces, except in this case they mail you the instructions, the special tool you need and one missing piece four to six weeks after purchase. Yeesh.

    Suggestions for better attendance at office hours…presuming that’s what you want. After all, it sounds like a nice peaceful time to work right now.
    1. Cookies
    2. Only those who show up with substantive questions earn the right to ask “will that be on the test?” in class
    3. Bloody Marys and mimosas. Those are for you, of course.


    13 Feb 13 at 1:45 pm

  2. Always tricky as a book needs more help. My own worst grievances are bad maps, either in the wrong place, with so much undifferntiated detail you can’t find the place referred to or so stripped of detail that the place isn’t shown. After that comes the translator who wishes to discuss the ambiguities of the original language at length in the text–surely something left for an appendix? But the Sayers Dante was a little like your Bacon–multiple layers of commentary and explanation, and never clear which contained needed information. It was, in fairness, always there somewhere–but where?

    Second the notion of cookies to encourage attendance in office hours–if you WANT attendance during office hours. Visiting students can play hob with reading or paperwork. And remember: “In education, prestige is measured by distance from the students.”


    14 Feb 13 at 10:47 am

  3. And I forgot the famous Map with No Scale. Or no compass rose. Don’t these people have checklists?


    14 Feb 13 at 10:48 am

  4. Hmmm. Evidently the usual places don’t include Wikipedia, but all the clues seem to have been correctly interpreted:



    17 Feb 13 at 5:04 pm

  5. I’d like to borrow the Blog for a vavorite rant. Behold once more UConn’s attempt to determine “most literate” cities:

    They might have gotten away with it if they hadn’t made DC Number One. I live in DC.

    Please note that there are ways to directly measure how much someone reads. You can actually hold surveys and ask them, you can check library circulation per capita, and you can find out how many books the locals buy. None are perfect, of course, but they do directly approach the problem. Per capita library circulation is a readily available number, and it’s telling that it is NOT used. Indeed, none of the direct methods are.

    Instead, UConn measures indirectly:
    –daily newspapers and local magazines–which will always advantage the large, rich urban areas
    –not library circulation but the number of library employees–can you say “featherbedding?”
    –total bookstores–are we all familiar with the “gift book?”
    –ownership of e-readers–again, bonus points for being rich
    –and, my own personal favorite, education: these people all went to the right schools, so they just HAVE to be smart and read a lot.

    What we’ve actually got here is a bunch of yuppies who haven’t been exposed to a new idea since high school, or a real book since college, but who give one another impressive coffee table editions and use their tablets to check the Washington POST for news government employees can use. The public libraries are overstaffed because every aspect of DC government is overstaffed, not because books are flying off the shelves. You could look all day here in Yuppie Central for a USED bookstore. Used bookstores sell works of lasting value to people who want the content. The local B&N thrives on politician’s memoirs and campaign books, published in “perfect binding” guaranteed not to survive two readings, should anyone be so masochistic.

    The survey–trumpeted as “news” every year–says nothing about reading rates–but a great deal about the people who conducted the survey.


    18 Feb 13 at 8:15 am

  6. Robert,

    You wrote “and, my own personal favorite, education: these people all went to the right schools, so they just HAVE to be smart and read a lot.”

    As far as I can make out from the article, they just counted university degrees but not which degrees.

    I agree that having a degree does not tell whether the person reads.

    Total bookstores and libraries. Hmm, I rarely use either. Amazon and ebooks are much more convenient.


    18 Feb 13 at 4:47 pm

  7. “As far as I can make out from the article, they just counted university degrees but not which degrees.”

    No, that’s fair enough. I’ve been here so long I tend to hear “right” before every mention of “school.” And there is even some evidence that education correlates with frequent reading. (Though no one ever seems to have checked to see whether or not that’s just a reflection of higher IQs tending to more education. It’s entirely possible that someone equally smart and not given the “benefits” of some of our universities would read more.)

    But it assumes what they want to prove. They could have found which zip codes have a higher percentage of university degrees quite easily. It doesn’t say a thing independently about reading.


    18 Feb 13 at 5:32 pm

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