This was one of the most fascinating lecture series I've ever listened to. (But then I am a bit of a grammar geek.) Did you know that the "pas" in the "ne pas" of French comes from the word "step"? As in "No, I'm not going, not a single step"?
These lectures are thick with this kind of lore. They're also peppered with Professor McWhorter's personal anecdotes about the languages he's studied and the native speakers he's known. But it's not all trivia and party chat -- there are extensive sections on the variety of grammars, on written vs non-written languages, on creoles vs pidgins, and an interesting (if gloomy) assessment of attempts to revive dying languages.
I can't say this series changed my life, but it certainly has changed how I think about culture and communication.
The title of this course could have been "The Quest for Objective Values". The professor does an excellent job in the first part of the course of surveying the great philosophers and their positions on relative vs objective values and morals. To each great thinker's position, he offers the opposing view of another great thinker, effectively presenting relativism vs objectivism as an engaging debate that spans all of history.
He then spends the rest of the course defining his own position, which is that yes, there is an objective truth, and that humanity is on the cusp of discovering it. Or at least of discovering how to perceive it, which, in his view, seems to have something to do with recognizing that "aspirational" goals are just as real as achievable goals.
This latter part of the course seems outdated; it is set in a time when we (Americans) had more faith in government, less faith in torture, and more openness to working across party lines and religious divides than we do now. Some of the examples and thought experiments fall flat, given the changes in our culture that have come about since then. I would love to hear an updated version of the same material from the same professor. (His lecturing style, by the way, was excellent.)
The most memorable topic in the lectures, to me, was Plato's view of democracy. If Plato could see us now he would be entirely vindicated.
I am only a few chapters into this, but I'm sorry to say I don't think I can stand any more of it. The content of these lectures is at the level of self-help pep talks, or maybe non-denominational church sermons, but certainly not college courses. If I had signed up for this course in college I would have dropped it after the first lecture unless I needed an easy 'A'.
Add this professor is not lecturing, he is reading a script that was written to sound as if he's lecturing. But he reads it so badly that instead of sounding like a well-informed and interesting lecturer, he sounds like an amateur actor.
I am about half the way through the audio book and completely absorbed by it. It's a detailed story of a complex swath of history, yet it hasn't gotten bogged down itemizing battles and rulers. Instead, it reveals the spirits of the times through the lives of history's notable intellects. Even better, it explores what historical writers didn't say, but that historians have since deduced, to shed light on the realities behind the dogma.
The narrator's mispronunciations, however, are driving me nuts. His voice is excellent, his pacing and emphasis are good, and even some of his mispronunciations I could live with if he would simply stick with them. But instead, he ping-pongs back and forth, seemingly unable to decide. Is it AM-brose or Am-BROSE? Constan-TEEN or Constan-TINE? Will it be tree-AY or tree-AIR for Trier? Sometimes I find myself talking back to him: "Prelate rhymes with pellet, not relate!" "Per-VANE-us? Did you perhaps mean parvenus?" And I almost spit out my coffee when he tried to say "Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose". It was so funny I wish I'd bookmarked it.
Nevertheless, I'd rather listen to this very dense book, mispronunciations and all, than try to find the time and focus to read all 800 pages myself.
This course is rich with detail about religion and philosophy during the four hundred years or so that it took for Christianity to engulf the Roman empire. I would so loved to have been a student in this course and participated in the discussion sections!
The narration is okay, not great. (I quibbled mentally with Prof. Harl's pronunciation on many occasions.) The organization of the material is pretty good. Prof. Harl takes care to remind you of previous lectures, when he references them, and he does a nice job of hinting about interesting topics to be covered later. The timeline of events is fairly clear, although there were some gaps (the entire fifth century, for example) that I don't remember hearing anything about. At any rate, I found myself thinking about the lectures in between listening, and looking forward to my next opportunity to listen.
"Can You Forgive Her" is archetypal Trollope, a novel of landed and not-so-landed gentry scheming endlessly about love and money. I am disappointed in Simon Vance's narration, however. His faint and ethereal voice of Alice makes her sound as if she were praying on her deathbed instead of arguing (which is what she does throughout most of the novel), and his male voices conjure up images of Dudley Dooright and Snidely Whiplash. And when Vance isn't misinterpreting characters with his voices, he is misplacing the emphasis of words in sentences (e.g., reading "It's not you he WANTS" when the context requires "It's not YOU he wants"). After hearing John Castle read "Vanity Fair", and Hugh Dickson read "Bleak House", I expected much more than what I'm getting out of Simon Vance's narration of "Can You Forgive Her".
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