Best and Interesting Reads of 2007 By Dr Myint Zan

As the year 2006 came to a close I finished reading W. Somerset Maugham’s Collected Short Stories, Volume 4, (Penguin books, 1967 reprint). The collected short stories which comprise around twenty-five stories were based on Maugham’s travels throughout various parts of the globe. The plurality of the stories were based in what was then called Malaya and the time setting, so to speak,  of these stories were   mainly in the 1920s. I read and re-read some of these stories –including the ones based in Malaya- in Malacca, Malaysia in the last days of 2006.


At the start of the (then) New Year 2007 I read the late Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s  Nest (Text and Criticism, edited by John Clark Patt, Penguin 1996) a depiction from the view point of one inmate of an (imaginary) mental asylum which was first published in February 1962. Commentaries on the book –by several persons and from various angles and perspectives- include brief medical analyses of lobotomy. There is also a feminist critique of Kesey’s depiction of the ‘Other’ which one should add is not the mental patients but of the stereotyping of the (female) head nurse: one of the main protagonist nay chief villain-of the novel.


I managed to read one biography in 2007: it is that of Somerset Maugham entitled simply Maugham by Ted Morgan, (Touchstone Book, 1980). Among many details of Maugham’s life Morgan provides the context and background to some of the Maugham’s stories based in Malaya and elsewhere.


In February 2007 I bought a two volume Burmese translation of The Holy Koran (transliterated to the Burmese as Koran Kyan-myat,) from a Kuala Lumpur (Burmese Muslim) store/book shop. It apparently took about  eighteen years   by a committee of about five scholars obviously proficient in both the Arabic and Burmese languages to do the translation. It  has both Arabic script and Burmese translation side by side on the same page. Following the Arabic style of writing from left to write both volumes read from back to front and in many pages it has extensive foot notes in Burmese explaining the various Suras in context and exploring and commenting on their significance. It has over 3000 pages and during 2007 I managed to read just over 800 pages from only the first volume.


Another book that I read in Burmese is also a translation. Again, it deals with another of Maugham’s work Ten Novels and Their Authors. It is ably translated by the late Burmese writer Kyaw Aung and though I have only read (from the original) Maugham’s comment on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the translation add to my knowledge of the ten novels which Maugham apparently considered  as literary classics


It was also a pleasure –and they did enhance my knowledge- to read two books (written in English) by two Burma scholars. Turmoil in Burma, Contested Legitimacies in Myanmar (Eastbridge, Signature Books) published in 2006, is written by David Steinberg a scholar based at Georgetown University in the United States. Though the book contains a few factual errors its value can be discerned not only in the historical, cultural and political science based analyses of the current Burmese political predicament. The book also discusses an overview of the concept of legitimacy in the international context and its application/ non application or non-applicability as the case may be in the Burmese context. Steinberg’s book can give rise to ‘contested’ debates and views among both activists and scholars interested in the subject.


Another Burma book is by Melford Spiro who is an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California at San Diego. Entitled Burmese Supernaturalism (Transaction publishers, 1996) the edition that I read contains an expanded preface by the author whose original publication dates to the year 1967. This book – as well as a few others- was the product of Professor Spiro’s field work in Burma during the years 1960 to 1962 which included his ten-month stay at a Burmese village near Mandalay.


I also bought and read a book(let) for the price of RM 4 entitled The Twin Peaks: Compassion and Insight By Padamasiri Desilva (published in Singapore around 1983)  which apparently attempted to compare psychological theories or doctrines found in that of Buddhist texts with those of modern Western psychological theories. Though some of the comparisons the author made were interesting indeed instructive there are quite a few typos as well as awkward expressions in the book.


Arguably the only ‘book about law’ that I read in 2007 (with the partial exception of The Last Days of Socrates) was the late H.L.A Hart’s The Concept of Law (first published in 1961 expanded  edition published posthumously in 1994) . Since I was (and am) teaching Jurisprudence to MMU law students and since the 150 0 page ( I can assure you that very few if any law lecturer not to say any student –arguably in the world- would have read the tome in its entirety) Lloyd’s Introduction to Jurisprudence (Sweet and Maxwell, 2001) did not specifically include any extensive excerpts from Hart’s book saying that if any student (and a fortiori Lecturer) of Jurisprudence read only a single book on the subject it should be that of Hart’s  I did read t he book in its entirety in 2007.


In 2007, I had the chance to read two books which I have had the ‘whim’ to read for many years. Ever since I read around 1977 or 1978 that the late Burmese scholar Dr. Ba Han’s (1890-1969) doctoral thesis was on the poet William Blake entitled William Blake: His Mysticism I have had  occasional whims or fancy to read it. In 2007 a friend informed me that by chance he had felicitously found the book (Folcroft Library Editions, 1973) in his local book store in Southern New South Wales, Australia. The book is a 1973 reproduction of Ba Han’s doctoral thesis submitted, in late June 1924, at Bordeaux University. It was published in a limited edition of 150 copies. It cost me about US 140 (around RM 500)  dollars to obtain the book and I should confess that at least some of the contents of the thesis is ‘mystical’ (or ‘Greek’) to me though I also learned more about Blake as well as his mysticism after finally reading the book. 


The Burmese writer Dagon Taya (born 1919) published a novel entitled May (in Burmese) in August 1941. It has been reprinted five times the most recent one being in 2002. In 1999 I came to learn that May was an adaptation of Beverley Nichols’ Self. Thanks to Peter Bobinskas from Mossvale, New South Wales, Australia – from whose efforts and through whose kind favor I also obtained Dr Ba Han’s rare book- I did obtain a 1938 reprint from Penguin books of Self which was first published in 1922.  Self, a novel first published when Nichols was only about 24 years old was to me (and naturally) more accessible than Ba Han’s academic –at times and ‘of right’ arcane-  tome.


I first came to learn about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion through a negative review of it in the New York Times Review of Books in late 2006. Subsequently I heard- perhaps unfounded- rumors that the book was banned in Malaysia. To my slight surprise  I found Dawkins’ book in a book store in Malacca.  I promptly bought and read it. Suffice to say here that I am in basic agreement with  most (though not all) of the ‘drift’ of the argument made  by this scientist and author  who have been described as an ‘evangelical atheist’. Dawkins work could be of some benefit for those who are open-minded enough to try to review with ‘just a little bit of detachment’- (to paraphrase from the passage ‘just a little bit of luck’ from one of the songs in the movie My Fair Lady) about ‘the surly bonds –Dawkins might prefer to  use the term ‘bondage’- of traditional religions’. (I also adapt this phrase from one of Ronald Reagan’s speeches written by Peggy Noonan his speech writer  in the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger disaster of January 1986:  ‘.. as they left the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God’).  The sales clerk of the book store where I bought The God Delusion told me that Dawkins fellow  anti-religious advocate Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religions Poison Everything was previously banned in Malaysia and was only recently un-banned. Still, I did not elect or ‘condescend’ to buy Hitchens’ book as one book about atheism for the year, I believe, is sufficient for me.


Instead, from the same book store,  I bought Rodney Castleden’s Events that Changed the World (Time Warner books, 2006) which listed and explained about 200 or more events starting from ‘The Toba Eruption’ which according to the author  took place about 75,000 BC and ended with  the December 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Publications of a few books such as Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (first published 1848, described in the book as 1847), Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and again Karl Marx’s  Das Kaptial (1867) also made the author’s list. In the light of the rampant triumph the world over of free-market economics it was at least with some surprise that I note that  Adam Smith’s seminal The Wealth of Nations  (1776) was not included in Castleden’s list. This omission, in my view, is even more striking when Castleden deems it fit to include Blaise Pascal’s  Pensées (1670) (‘Thoughts’) (which I have read in English translation)  as one of less than 250 events going back to 95,000 years of human history which ‘changed the world’. Though I bought The God Delusion and Events that Changed the World on the same day, from the same bookshop, it took me much longer to finish the latter book- which is also more bulky at about nearly 600 pages- and I finished reading the last ‘section’ of the book (about the Tsunami of 26 December 2004) on its third anniversary.


The late Burmese poet Tin Moe (1933-2007) died in exile in a suburb of Los Angeles in January 2007. One of the early collections of Burmese poems that Tin Moe published  in the year 1959 was entitled (in translation) The Lantern.  An Elegy to the Lantern is the title of the collection several dozen tributes, all except two in Burmese, which include poems, reminiscences and short statements from those inside and outside the country about  this simple, humane and prolific poet. Tin Moe composed his last poem on the night before he died which was also reproduced in the book. An Elegy to the Lantern was published by Tin Moe’s daughters with the assistance of some in the Burmese community based in the United States on the one month anniversary of Tin Moe’s death.


Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom be Found? (Riverhead Books, 2004) is the fourth book by Bloom that I have read in the past twelve years. It is –in comparison- the least bulky among them but it is no less educative and no less entertaining. This self-confessed ‘Bardolator’ did of course give his inevitable homage to the wisdom of Shakespeare. Bloom thinks less of Pascal than that of Montaigne’s literary and philosophical achievements and he infers that Pascal took a few of his ‘musings’ or ‘thoughts’ in Pensees from Montaigne’s  Essays (first published 1580) which Rodney Castleden did not mention in his book.


I read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (edited by David Bevington and David Scott Kasden, Bantam  Classics, 2005) for the first time  just after I read Bloom’s book and this dilettante learned –among many others- that the phrase ‘Seems Madam, nay it is’ is Shakespearean. I have been familiar with that phrase from one of the titles of Bertrand Russell’s essays a few decades ago but it was only a few months ago that I learned from reading Hamlet that it is Shakespearean.


December 2007 was the 35th anniversary to the month when two American astronauts from the Apollo 17 spacecraft  left the surface of the moon  (as of now) for the last time in December 1972.  I bought and read the book entitled The Dream of Space Flight; Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity by Wyn Wachhorst (Basic Books 2000) on this anniversary. It is an extended essay or a series of essays on the subject and written  in what was supposed to be a lyrical manner but at times the style is such that –to me- it sounds somewhat stilted and a tad pompous or contrived. Still, one learns, among others, about the pioneers and ‘dreamers’ about spaceflight from Johannes Kepler to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Carl Sagan and it is  a worthwhile read especially in the context that I bought the book for an equivalent of two US dollars (and in comparison with the more than seventy times I paid for Dr. Ba Han’s rare book)!


I spent the last few days of 2007 reading (in part re-reading) The Last Days of Socrates (translated and edited by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant, Penguin Classics, 2003) which comprise of four ‘books’: The Euthyphro,  The Apology, The  Crito and The Phaedo. Previously, I have not read  The  Euthyphro. Neither have I previously read the longest – and to me at times winding- work among the four ‘books’: The Phaedo whereby Plato in the form of the apparently exalted Socrates, in the imminence of his pending execution by hemlock,  discussed the after-life. In parts of The Phaedo Socrates expressed or at least strongly implied his expectation nay virtual certainty that he, as a philosopher, would find  the next world to be more pleasing than the one he was about to leave.


Though the comparison might sound outrageous or at least untenable to many,  several hours after I finished reading –with an effort- The  Phaedo it ‘crossed my mind’ that a few of the Socratic or Platonian (rather than Platonic which I understand has a different meaning than the one I intend)  musings and ‘postulates’ about the after-life might  have a few affinities with the ‘musings’ or ‘visions’  of the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which I read at the beginning of the year.  Perhaps ‘in apology’ I might write that this observation is mainly written in jest and to connect a possible, if tenuous and fanciful theme or one aspect of my impression of the first and last books that I read in 2007.




Dr. Myint Zan

School of Law, Faculty of Business and Law

Multimedia University, Malacca


Tel + 60-13-600 6679 (Mobile)

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