Book Review: The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table


Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes
Title: The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table
Publication Info: Cosimo Classics (2005) [Originally published, 1858]
ISBN: 1596053070

Summary/Review:

I recently completed reading 107 daily installments of this classic work on DailyLit. This book lends itself well to this format as it is a series of essays and often less essay than snippets, vignettes, and quotes as if collected in a commonplace book.  Oliver Wendell Holmes waxes on poetry, manners, philosophy, aging and the art of conversation often with a touch of humor and satire.  It was a fun way to read a Yankee classic.

Favorite Passages:

When I feel inclined to read poetry I take down my Dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and luster have been given by the attrition of ages. Bring me the finest simile from the whole range of imaginative writing, and I will show you a single word which conveys a more profound, a more accurate, and a more eloquent analogy.

Why, the truths a man carries about with him are his tools; and do you think a carpenter is bound to use the same plane but once to smooth a knotty board with, or to hang up his hammer after it has driven its first nail? I shall never repeat a conversation, but an idea often. I shall use the same types when I like, but not commonly the same stereotypes. A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.

You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way,–AND THE FOOLS KNOW IT.

Many people can ride on horseback who find it hard to get on and to get off without assistance. One has to dismount from an idea, and get into the saddle again, at every parenthesis.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli


Author: Niccolò Machiavelli
Title: The Prince
Publication Info: New York : Knopf, c1992. (1532)  (read on DailyLit)
ISBN: 0679410449

Summary/Review:

This is a book I never wanted to read mainly due to my preconceptions about what it meant to be Machiavellian.  But I figured it would be worth reading over 54 installments on DailyLit. Shortly after beginning reading I came across this Britannica article about reconsidering The Prince as well.  A short summary of The Prince is that it is a guidebook on how to be a successful monarch.  He basically sets out standards for a Prince to balance kindness and cruelty, avoiding being hated but also avoiding being seen as a patsy, and appear to be virtuous without always being virtuous.  Machiavelli’s directness often comes across as comical and according to some commentarties I’ve read may have been intended to be satire.  In toto, The Prince is not quite what I expected although it is also not necessarily a book I’ll love.  But it’s worth reading a book I don’t want to read every once in a while.

Favorite Passages:

And he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.

Because men, when they receive good from him of whom they were expecting evil, are bound more closely to their benefactor; thus the people quickly become more devoted to him than if he had been raised to the principality by their favours

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.
And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And this question can be reasoned thus: the prince who has more to fear from the people than from foreigners ought to build fortresses, but he who has more to fear from foreigners than from the people ought to leave them alone. … For this reason the best possible fortress is:not to be hated by the people, because, although you may hold the fortresses, yet they will not save you if the people hate you, for there will never be wanting foreigners to assist a people who have taken arms against you.

Recommended books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Enchantress of Florence: A Novel by Salman Rushdie
Rating: **