Matt Forney
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Thirty Seven: Essays on Life, Wisdom and Masculinity by Quintus Curtius

thirty-sevenEverything old is new again.

The older I get, the more I realize that the world really hasn’t changed at all. Feminism, cultural Marxism and multiculturalism are just the latest manifestations of spectres that have haunted humanity going back to the time of Ur. Humanity is locked in a perpetual circle of might and misery, reaching great highs and humiliating lows as predictably as a grandfather clock. Expecting most people to learn from their mistakes is pure folly, which is why wise men look to the great texts of yesteryear to discover where humanity has been.

In order to understand our future, we need to know our past.

That’s the thrust of Quintus Curtius’ debut book, Thirty SevenA collection of essays both original and culled from his Return of Kings articles, Curtius tackles everything from history to literature to foreign languages with insight and wit. While somewhat thematically disconnected at points, Thirty Seven serves as not only a smart introduction to the classics of Western and world literature, but a compelling and thoughtful work in its own right.

Thirty Seven succeeds primarily because Curtius doesn’t simply regurgitate history and literature at you like a bored professor. He has that rarest of talents: the ability to take a work or story and expand upon it, probing themes and concepts that might not immediately come to you reading the work yourself. Whether he’s discussing the travails of Averroës, the medieval Islamic scholar, or retelling the story of John Paul Jones’ fall from grace, Curtius forces you to consider dimensions of life that may not have come to you on your own:

This implied the limitations of faith and the prerogatives of reason; and medieval man did not want to hear that faith had its limits, and was circumscribed by boundaries. Averröes’s books were suppressed by the secular authorities of his day. The caliph at Baghdad ordered his writings destroyed in 1150, and this edict was reissued by authorities in Seville in 1194. Most of his important writings were preserved only in Latin translation from the original Arabic; learned Jews translated some of his books into Hebrew, and thereby preserved additional Averröist legacies. In the universities of Paris and London, the debate over Averröism spread like wildfire in the Middle Ages, and stimulated the philosophic output of Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, and countless others. But this debate was never really held in Islam. Speculative thought hid in fear from persecution, and retreated from the sunlight.

Thirty Seven features the same prose style that Curtius uses in his Return of Kings articles: authoritative, powerful, yet approachable, the voice of a wizened elder giving advice to the young’uns. While his writing gets a little too academic in spots, these speed bumps are minor: Thirty Seven makes its subject matter as approachable as it can possibly be. This combined with the brevity of most of the essays makes it possible to blow through the book pretty quickly.

Indeed, one of the greatest achievements of Thirty Seven is that it puts the classics into context. People blindly assume that books that have survived throughout the centuries are automatically good, hence Mark Twain’s riposte that a classic is a book that everyone praises and nobody reads. Curtius helps to contextualize philosophies of the past, such as Stoicism, by filling in the gaps as to how they came about:

Good disciplines to know also are literature, in that it forms good habits of virtue, and strengthens the memory by study. Rhetoric (the art of eloquence) and disputation are required also for being able to verbally spar with opponents in the inevitable contests that will confront any leader. Poetics is good for relaxation, mathematics and the sciences good for logical development, and languages for getting outside oneself.

The book isn’t all high-minded philosophy and history, however. A number of the essays deal with practical advice on learning foreign languages. As an experienced world traveler, Curtius offers some useful tips that run counter to the Rosetta Stone-esque junk that pervades the Internet today:

Daily commitment is necessary for cementing the structures and patterns of the language in your long-term memory. You need to be working at least 30 minutes per day, every day, for a few years. If you can’t handle this commitment, then you will not be successful. If you are studying more than one language at a time, make sure you use different desks or tables in your house or apartment. I learned this technique in a biography of Sir Richard Burton, an amazing 19th century British explorer and linguist. He had a separate desk in his house for each language he studied. The technique works: the mind tends to associate each different place with what is studied there. This speeds learning and prevents “linguistic interference” where one language interferes with another.

If I were to criticize the book for anything, it’s that Thirty Seven’s organization feels somewhat slipshod. While not as bad as, say, Captain Capitalism: Top Shelfthe book doesn’t seem to be assembled in a logical order. For example, the essays on foreign language learning aren’t lumped together as they should, but are strewn about the book. This might confuse readers who expect their books to contain a more cohesive line of reasoning.

However, this really isn’t that important. Thirty Seven is a rare gem: a book that truly, deeply educates you. It’s a book that expands your knowledge of life and the world, and does so in a way that is entertaining and never boring. It’s easily one of the most enlightening books I’ve read this year. Whether you’re curious about the classics or you want deep insights on the masculine condition, Thirty Seven belongs in your collection.

Click here to buy Thirty Seven.

Read Next: Life is Short and So is This Book: Brief Thoughts on Making the Most of Your Life by Peter Atkins