Book Review – Meditations (By: Marcus Aurelius)

Four years ago I started reading some of the great “classic” political and philosophical works. I finished The Prince and moved on to Meditations (both really threw off my “date written” graph, which is the main reason I mention it). Unfortunately, then life got in the way, and Meditations was much more… “boring” than the previous works I had finished. With my workload intensifying I wasn’t in the right state of mind to read a journal of stoic philosophy, so it went away, and when my workload went down I read “more exciting” books, but this one stayed in my mind, and in my “to-read” pile. Three and a half years later I finally resolved to “really finish” it, and, even though it took me a month, I did (now I just need to get back to On The Road and Europe Central {they don’t have anything to do with this either, really}). Now, does my resistance to finishing it mean that it’s a bad book? Or is it something worth getting through?

There are no high quality versions of my cover.

I actually started by reading the introduction this time, but not getting through all of it. It gets a bit boring (as introductions tend) but I think the first few pages are a very good… well, “introduction” to what the text is about (The translator’s note is also good reading, and might be a bit better of an introduction in my version: the Penguin Classics from 1977). And after that I caught up to my bookmark, still there on page 2/3 (36/37), which shows you how devoted I was to it starting out. I didn’t exactly pick up the pace on this reading, either. The book is dense and difficult to read, for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is that it was never meant to be a book that someone read. The fact that the text was originally a series of journals titled “to Myself” (in Greek) demonstrates this. There are few transitional phrases or sentences and the ideas themselves don’t always follow a nice logical order; everything is dense and clunky, like how you would write down ideas in a notebook. Its only attempt at explaining the philosophy it is about is for the benefit of the author, who was supposed to be its only reader. It flows like a book of introspective quotes about life that is curated well enough to make you stop and think about most of them, and this delays the reading. It’s hard to focus on the next paragraph when the previous is still working its way though your mind, and you’re still analyzing whether you agree with it, or how it relates to your life/perspective, or whether it’s changed your mind. It feels like you need to remember every word for future reference.

And of course there’s also a bit of a language “barrier”, since the book was written close to 2,000 years ago in Greek, at a time when English hadn’t even developed as a language, there are going to be some places where words’ meanings have changed or are difficult to translate. But there are many universal feelings that can still be conveyed; when Aurelius mentions a desire to retire by the beach, or stay underneath warm blankets in the morning (both poor decisions in his mind) you might, as I, be struck by the idea that people have been having these same thoughts for two thousand years. That amount of time can be dehumanizing, and being able to look and see that they weren’t “that” different from us is a useful tool. (Interestingly, I interpreted this as humans battling the same unproductive urges for millennia, but my brother viewed it more as a legitimization of those feelings) Still there are other linguistic oddities that need to be explained, my favorite being “a better thrower down”, which is a saying that I absolutely must now shoehorn into my English usage. And the original context for “cynic” and “stoic” might take some getting used to. (In the text of my copy the translator mentions a joke from the time “How do you tell a stoic from a cynic? … He wears a shirt”, which would still work in modern contexts if you add “Boom! Ancient Greek philosopher joke!” or something to that effect).

I find the whole thing hard to do justice to. I have read some people’s opinions who think the book is an angsty diary that was only kept because it happened to belong to an emperor. And there certainly is some of that there; this book is easily proof that people from all walks of life can find reason to be unhappy. And its cosmic talk about how the body replaces itself (which, when paired with the idea of a spherical earth might mean that Aurelius had more scientific knowledge than some people today), or one’s “soul” won’t endure forever might be seen as the worst parts of a teenager’s stilted nihilism. Still, there is an optimism in it, and it feels wise at the very least in the way a student who has not reached enlightenment but can parrot the master is wise (and Marcus claims to be no master). I suppose the best I could really do at this point is to show you a few quotes from the text, as I’m not going to be getting better at explaining it.

“You can not reprimand chance, or impeach providence.”

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

“The Pride that swells beneath a garb of humility is of all things the most intolerable.”

“Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted your further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage.”

“Living and dying… riches and poverty… are equally the lot of good men and bad. Things like these neither elevate nor degrade.”

“Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion.”

“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard.”

“Life is opinion.”

“What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee.”

“If the crew took to vilifying their steersmen; or the patients their doctor, is there any other they would listen to instead; and how would such another be able to ensure the safety of the sailors or the health of the sick.”

“When men are inhuman, take care to not feel towards them as they do towards other humans.”

“Soon you will have forgotten he world, and soon will the world have forgotten you.”

It’s a difficult book to read, and I wouldn’t recommend you necessarily read it like any other book. Meditations is a good bedside book, or rather a good “wherever you put books that you’ll occasionally pick up and read a few paragraphs from” book. It’s interesting and insightful but dense and clunky. It isn’t exactly a master’s work on stoic or proto-Christian philosophy, but it is an interesting distillation that can deepen your understanding as a reader. It’s not a book for everyone, and knowing what it is and what it isn’t when first starting will likely be important to how enjoyable one finds the book (fortunately they go out of their way to provide this context in many prefaces). It’s not a book to be read lightly, or without care, but when finished, it’s one that is nice to have bouncing around in your head.

Review – Muji Hexa Ballpoint (.25mm Gel Pen)

My handwriting is very fine, and I always gravitate toward finer and finer tipped pens in my quest to jam as much information on the page as possible. But there is a limit to how small the tip of any given pen can be. Too thin a felt-tip will simply break, and ballpoints or Rapidograph-style pens will either not allow ink flow or damage paper. Thus, even pens on the smaller end of the possible scale are hard to come by (being more expensive and relatively user-specific when compared to more standard sizes), with .25 being about as thin as one can find. Muji, in its characteristic minimalist style, offers a gel pen in such a small size. Is it a worthwhile purchase?

As with many Muji products, the pen is outwardly pretty simple. The hexagonal black body is a little larger in diameter than a pencil, and covered in a matte rubber that is only interrupted by two slits in the plastic near the front (for seeing the ink level) and a set of bumps with the slightest of step downs for posting in the back. After a brief clear plastic part, the metal cone in the front quickly brings us to a very fine protruding ink tube that’s about an eighth of an inch long. The clear plastic cap is also hexagonal, with an integrated clip and matching color insert that both covers the tip and displays the sizing information where it can be read easily from a pencil cup. Other than this, there are no markings on the item itself, as the label comes off, stripping you of all its information(in Japanese).

Performance is good. The pen is comfortable to hold and stays firmly in one’s hand (though the material can make capping and uncapping a bit more “frictionful”). When put to paper, ink flows relatively smoothly. At this size of tip, it is impossible to eliminate all of the scratchiness, but a good job has been done of controlling it. Likewise, another problem at this thinness is that a pen will tend to skip more if at any angle other than perpendicular to the page, but this too has been mitigated. I’d still recommend you write as straight as possible, but it shouldn’t have too great an effect on the writing. I don’t have much information on the ink, but I can tell you that it dries quite quickly (I almost can’t get it to smudge) and it’s waterfast and alcohol resistant (it does bleed a little, but remains legible, which is good for writing and bad for stains). Its spread isn’t too bad either, laying out on the average page about the same thickness as a .25mm (01) technical fineliner (though, with my handwriting both seem very close to a .7 ballpoint).

The pen’s a good one. It’s nice and sleek with a rugged body (I might be worried about the longevity of the cap. though) and a good writing feel. It’s slightly more expensive than a gel pen of comparable quality in the States (the price tag says ¥210, or about $2, but they sell it in the US for $3), but not enough to be out of their range. The tip is noticeably more fine than other ballpoints and gel pens you’ll find, but in my opinion almost awkwardly so (I’ve never been a fan of how gel pens look on the page {when written with my hand}), and there can be potential issues with the pen drying out. Still, if you’re looking for a functional and minimal super-thin writing pen (that isn’t as finicky or fragile as a technical pen) this is one to look at.

Review – Tombow 2558 Pencil

The Tombow 2558 pencil was introduced to me as a “favorite” pencil, so obviously I had to pick one up. Still, when you first look at it, it’s a pretty unassuming thing. It looks like your standard yellow pencil, with something a little… “off”. So how is it different?

The body of the pencil is very similar to your average yellow (orangish) pencil. It is basically the same length: 7½” including the eraser attached by copper-colored ferrule. Like most, it’s hexagonal with the information stamped and printed on opposing facets. This information, rendered in a pleasant reddish-brown, is more than enough, giving you: the company (Tombow), the purpose (for General Writing), and the hardness (HB). But there is something to make the body of the pencil stand out: it is slightly thicker than your average pencil, about a millimeter more in diameter. Just enough that one can tell it’s different, but if they aren’t side by side you’ll scratch your head.

In practice this makes the pencil more comfortable to hold (more material means less hand cramping), and with its super smooth HB lead it really is a pleasure to write/sketch with. And this lead does feel a bit softer than I usually expect an HB to feel. It produces darker lines with seemingly the same pressure (and surprising ease), but that certainly improves the ease of writing with it. And the eraser functions well; it doesn’t remove everything, but it doesn’t vanish either.

This is, as advertised, a very nice pencil for writing. And everything about it is well-done. The finish is nice and evenly applied, the wood is sturdy as is the lead, and the ferrule is nicely fitted on a step-down so that it doesn’t catch and is unblemished by its crimping. If you’re a wood pencil person (I’m not as much) and are looking for something high quality but still standard looking, this is a nice option. It might not be a smooth as a Blackwing, but it’s surprisingly close, and if I’m ever using a wood pencil, it’ll probably be the one I reach for.

Review – Staedtler Mars Lumograph Pencil (F)

“I use these specifically, because I like the nice blue,” is a bit of a paraphrase from a former instructor of mine when discussing what pencils to get for sketching or other artistic purposes. The main gist of this discussion was that it really comes down to personal preference, since there are so many different pencil brands that all make quality products. Aesthetics are important, and Staedtler is known for their deep blue coloring (as well as their quality craftsmanship), and that’s part of what makes the Mars Lumograph iconic, but is it what you should be using (specifically in “F” hardness because I like my pencils a little bit on the hard side)?

The body is a standard hexagonal shape, with a similar size to your average writing pencil. A deep blue covers almost the entire pencil, save an end cap that is black and a white band just beneath it. On the end cap the hardness is stamped in a silver ink on all 6 facets, and the main product information is rendered in the same color on the back two thirds of the blue area. Opposite this facet a product number and bar code are printed in white.

This pencil doesn’t really have any fancy features; like most sketching pencils, it doesn’t even have an eraser. But what it does have functions superbly. The wood is light but sturdy (no splintering) and the lead well centered (no weird angles or breaking because of sharpener issues). The lead itself is wonderfully smooth, even with my preference for firmer feedback.

And that really just affirms the idea that started this off. The Lumograph is a good pencil, it can take a beating and keep on sketching. The materials are good, and the assembly is what you would want. But, aside from it being good quality and easy-to-find, there isn’t a real reason to recommend this over another drawing pencil. If you like the blue, definitely go for them. If you think blue is better than the other choices (black or green in most cases), also take a look. If you’ve been with the brand forever or just find there’s something about the feel that you really enjoy, there’s no reason to turn away.

Review – The Fine Touch 3-Brush Set (1-,2-, and 3-inch Flat)

I’m not a painter, or at least, not very often. Painting is expensive, time consuming, and space requiring. But nowadays there are budget products that are easing the “pain” a little bit. Bopping in to your local superstore and buying a set of brushes with a canvas or two for less than $20 is incredible. And “The Fine Touch” is one of the more visible brands (in my area at least) selling inexpensive painting supplies, like a set of three 1-inch increment synthetic brushes. Do they really work though?

Despite the common wisdom for years being that natural hair brushes are superior to synthetic nylon ones, they have made some improvement in quality over that time. I don’t know if the best synthetic brushes are better than the best natural ones, nor would I claim that these are better than any other brush, but I personally prefer the little extra “bounce” the nylon provides, and they’ve worked quite well for me over several painting projects.

The basic structure is the same as virtually all paint brushes: a wooden handle with information printed on it (varnished in this case) shaped like a paddle with a ferrule on one end that holds in a set of bristles. Conveniently, these also have a hanging hole at the end for easy storage. Everything about them is cheap; the wood is lighter than the bristles, with brush strokes in its finish and burs on the drill holes; the ferrules are a flimsily metal (which will likely rust) that has either cracked or slightly splintered each handle in the fastening process, and the bristles have a bad habit of falling out during the first few uses.

So obviously they aren’t “forever” brushes, but for what they are (cheap superstore brushes) they are entirely adequate to paint with. If you only have a couple projects, just want to get some paint down, or feel the need to ease into things you might not know you want to do “forever”, then they will work just fine for that. You won’t become a master using these, and you might get frustrated with the bristles in your paintings, but they work, and for just getting started, that’s enough.