Posts Tagged ‘Isidore of Seville’

August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

Al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

December 18, 2016

51vj4rksg2l-_ac_us160_I have been curious about how people saw and tried to understand the world in the past, for a very long time. When I studied Latin in the sixth form, I came across Virgil’s recipe for bees in his fourth Georgic: to make bees, you stop up all the bodily orifices of a young calf and beat it to a pulp, and leave it in a tower with windows facing the four cardinal points: come back a week later and there will be bees! And it turned out it wasn’t that bonkers a theory as there’s a type of fly that looks very like a bee that lays eggs in carrion in that part of the world…

Writers have compiled compendia of knowledge over the centuries, until the time came at some point around the sixteenth century when it was no longer possible for one person to know everything that was known about the world. There’s a man from those times called Athanasius Kirchner who I’ve come across a few times. So there was Pliny’s Natural History, which is a fascinating collection of information that the Romans knew or speculated, and Isidore of Seville’s marvellous Etymologies, in which he tried to write down everything that was known in his time (seventh century) and for which he has become the patron saint of the internet.

And here is one of the Islamic world’s similar ventures. The original runs to 33 volumes, apparently, so this is a brief but carefully chosen selection, well translated and annotated, giving a feel of the original. Hazelnuts enlarge the brain, according to our fourteenth century author, but for me the most wonderful insight was that, if you are ever bitten by a panther, you must be very wary of mice, who will be attracted to you and come to urinate on you, and if one does, you will certainly die…

The sections on the natural world are probably the most fascinating; there are all sorts of bizarre recipes for enhancing sexual prowess, which make today’s spam e-mails seem positively dull. And the Islamic version of the Adam and Eve story is also an eye-opener, far more detailed and elaborate than the Genesis version. It’s not all from the Qur’an, but I’m unsure where the embellishments are from.

What come across to me quite clearly in all these authors and other that I’ve come across, is that there are things which they know for certain, and we can recognise these because they are correct and accurate to our understanding too, things that they are unsure about, and admit they are unsure about – here, our author concludes such sections with ‘God knows best’ which seems fair enough to me, and then things they clearly don’t know at all, have come across through hearsay or are just guessing. Today, in our scientific age, we are given the impression that everything is known; I think modern writers ought to be similarly modest and humble, but instead they usually present themselves as experts, founts of all knowledge and wisdom, or else we lend them that kind of authority unquestioningly. There are surely many things which we don’t know yet, and many things which we write of today as if we are certain of them, but which will come to be corrected in the future. I sometimes wonder what our generation’s equivalent of Virgil’s bees or Al-Nuwayri’s hazelnuts will turn out to be…

G R Evans: A Brief History of Heresy

August 20, 2015

9780631235262I found this a very useful little book, of the kind I’ve been looking for for ages; it pulled a lot of disparate details into place in my understanding and offered a clear taxonomy of heresies. I’m interested in the way various belief systems have developed and evolved, and the way changes to a system can either be accepted and authorised, or regarded as evils to be extirpated. Such approaches are visible in other religions such as Islam, and also in the various so-called communist creeds of the last century. The Orthodox Church, for example, regards itself as unchanged since apostolic times, and the Roman Catholic Church as the one that’s changed…

Initially, unity is important: how is consensus to be achieved and maintained as an organisation or church grows in size? Is the Pope to be head of the entire church, or should there be autocephalous patriarchs of various provinces? As I read further, it became clearer how it took a long time for certain aspects of dogma to be formalised and codified, often in response to new thinking and questioning; such beliefs we nowadays imagine have always been truths. Thus it was only from the eleventh century that the popes began to claim to be the heads of all Christianity, only from the nineteenth that they claimed to be infallible in matters of doctrine. Scripture was only regarded as the prime source of everything by the precursors of the sixteenth century reformers; it took several centuries to define the nature of Christ (!) and clarify what the Trinity was, and transubstantiation… to my mind, all huge changes and developments of the original events of two millennia ago, whatever they actually may have been.

Unity was definitively lost at the Reformation: although Rome may have regarded them as heretics, the reformers created new churches, and now there are thousands of them.

Once beliefs are codified and become part of the state apparatus, then there develops repression to enforce compliance, and we are in the territory of the various inquisitions, because so-called heresies (and power can decide anything is a heresy) are social challenges and attacks on authority. And because the victors write history, many heresies – the Cathar one in particular – lack any clear account of their belief system and ritual practices.

And then, at least in the West, as we like to think, eventually there develops a spirit of toleration, the idea that anyone shall be free to believe what they like or not, although in fact such tolerance only develops because it becomes impossible to enforce conformity any longer…

And I was also glad that this book sent me back to one of my heroes, Isidore of Seville, who wrote a whole chapter on heresies in his Etymologies in the seventh century. He’s the patron saint of the internet, by the way, and author of what’s generally believed to be the first encyclopaedia…

In pursuit of knowledge…

March 3, 2015

Whether one takes a religious line and believes that God gave us reason and intellect and therefore we should use them, or a more secular approach, believing that the human brain is one of the peaks and marvels of evolution, surely our curiosity and ability to pursue knowledge is one of the greatest things about our species; I have always felt this.

Humans have always sought to know and to understand their world; over millennia our knowledge and understanding has grown. Men have sought to write down the sum of what is known – Pliny‘s Natural History is a fascinating example of this, although for me the pioneer has always been Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century monk who wrote what has sometimes been called the world’s first encyclopaedia, his Etymologies, a series of twenty short volumes which attempt to classify, categorise and explain all things that were definitely known in his time. For his pioneering work, he has earned the title of patron saint of the internet, which I think is wonderful. The organisation and content of the Etymologies is at times weird and/ or bizarre, but it’s the effort and determination, and the understanding that it needed to be done, which earns the respect.

Similarly, travellers and explorers, about whom I often write, have dedicated themselves, through the centuries, to finding out about the furthest corners of our world, often at extreme risk and peril; the more I read, the more I am astonished by how much was known and discovered long ago, in many different lands. But then, knowledge can be lost, and I do feel that there is a Western bias in the way that discovery is presented to us nowadays, in that a thing or place in unnown until someone from the west has uncovered it and written about it.

When I was 14, men landed on the moon for the first time and walked about on it; I got myself up at three in the morning to watch the event live on grainy black and white television, and it is still, all those years later, the most marvellous thing that has happened in my lifetime, and it remains etched clearly on my memory. Yes, they knew where they were going, how far it was, and how long it would take, and the risks involved; they did it, and it’s the furthest humanity has physically got in its exploration of the universe. I doubt that I will still be here when men walk on Mars, but I do believe that money, time and effort spent on getting there is worthwhile, compared with many other things on which we waste our time and resources.

When Wikipedia first began, the idea seemed weird: an encyclopaedia anyone could contribute to, and yet as it has evolved and developed it has become a veritable goldmine of information (yes, I know not all of it is reliable, but its reach stretches way beyond anything else) and it lives on in the spirit of Isidore, as a recognition of our search for knowledge.

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014

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I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

The Search for Knowledge

March 9, 2014

219SW147+JL._I’ve been reflecting this week on this basic human drive: the urge to discover, and to know. I was prompted by revisiting two texts I really like, Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories, and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In Roman times, Pliny attempted to codify what was known about the natural world – and it’s a lot – and in the seventh century, Isidore, a Spanish monk, attempted to write down everything that was known about the world, organised into (to him) logical sequence, thus producing what is arguably the world’s first encyclopaedia. Everything is listed, and its Latin name analysed for clues as to its nature and essence, sometimes correctly, occasionally very fancifully. And for his efforts, Isidore was named patron saint of the internet, which I find wonderfully appropriate. Arab scholars also collected and codified knowledge; the only one I’ve read so far is Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early fifteenth century.

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This urge to know, and to collect all knowledge, culminated in the encyclopaedias of the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps culminating in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sadly, printed sets of this mammoth work cannot now even be freecycled with ease – who wants 32 hefty volumes on their shelves nowadays, with all knowledge at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger?

Apparently, we now can search for, and find out anything, instantly. No need to learn or retain facts, as they can easily be re-located at will. And yet, these are usually only snippets or gobbets of knowledge, without depth, detail and context. I use wikipedia as much as anyone: it’s an incredibly useful tool, most especially for the links at the end of a lot of articles. But if I want depth and detail, I still turn to old-fashioned paper. I wonder if it’s my age; certainly, reading page-like chunks of text online is quite hard on the eyes; ‘normal’ net-text is smitten into small gobbets, surrounded by white space and illustrated with pictures and hyperlinks, rather like today’s school textbooks, which used to have me wondering whether there was as much depth to learning and understanding nowadays… and is much more readable onscreen.

Long ago I realised that one of the reasons I love travel writing, especially from past ages, is that the travellers were genuinely exploring and discovering (for us) new places and peoples, new knowledge, and so often wondering and marvelling at the diversity of the world. This urge to discover is one of the best attributes of our species, it seems to me. I have been fascinated by the exploration of space from my very earliest years (at primary school, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men to reach the moon!); I’ve always felt that this is money well-spent, peanuts in comparison with what is wasted on armaments and warfare, for example. I don’t think I’ll ever live through a more significant moment than that night when I arose at 3am to watch live on TV the first men actually walk on the moon, and the thought that, in my lifetime, our species has built a spacecraft that was launched and has now travelled so far as to be almost outside our solar system, is truly marvellous.

So, what have I contributed to all this? I hope that, as a teacher, I managed to inspire students with a yearning for, and an understanding of the value of knowledge. I have read, and will continue to read and learn as long as the eyes allow, and I will discuss and argue about most things with whoever comes along… and hope to learn something new every day.

Umberto Eco: The Book of Legendary Lands

December 23, 2013

513WwIWE0qL._AA160_This was a pre-Christmas treat from me to me – and what a gorgeous book! It’s beautifully produced and matches the other three on my shelf, On Beauty, On Ugliness and The Infinity of Lists. And it’s utterly fascinating, and I read it from cover to cover.

Eco is a mediaevalist, and, as I thought about this, I realised that it was possible for someone of his age to know pretty much everything there was to know from those times, given that knowledge, learning and resources then were rather more limited that nowadays. His encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, history, culture, theology and art really shows. A couple of years ago I read about someone trying to work out how long ago in the past it would have been when someone could have known everything there was to know – perhaps four or five centuries ago, perhaps. And that took me back to Isidore of Seville (now officially patron saint of the internet), who wrote his Etymologies in the seventh century, attempting to codify everything that was known about everything for certain at that time.

People used to believe all sorts of strange things about the parts of the world they had no knowledge of, and it’s when he writes about these imagined lands that Eco is at his most captivating: Atlantis, the unknown southern continent, the lands of Prester John… and their bizarre inhabitants, both animal and ‘human’.  Again, I found myself realising how differently people looked at and thought about their world; in the West, all was considered through the looking glass of religious faith and revelation, giving a view of the world that we find hard to get our minds around today, but then we see the world through scientific and materialist glasses today, and I think I’d argue that that was just as limiting to us today in our exploration of ourselves and out world, as the Christian glasses of the mediaeval epoch.

You can see where much of the inspiration for his fiction has come from, too; I have re-read Baudolino several times (and it’s coming up for another re-read) and still marvel at how Eco has drawn his reader into the world, beliefs and mind-set of his mediaeval characters, who end up seeing all the fantastic creatures that they have been brought to believe in…

Eco also demolishes the Rennes-le-Chateau story, and Dan Brown’s awful novel, in a thorough and masterly way. The whole thing was a fraud from start to finish.

The illustrations in the book are a joy, too. Lots of them, some vaguely familiar, and others totally new to me; strange maps, weird creatures and visions, and I was bought up short again by the question of perspective, or lack of it, in mediaeval art: I cannot believe painters in those times could not see how weird their pictures looked, and cannot see why they couldn’t do perspective properly… which is a limit to my imagination, I suppose.

Anyway, this book was a real joy and I know I shall enjoy it many times more.

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