The best books on becoming a scholar

Holger Gzella Author Of Aramaic: A History of the First World Language
By Holger Gzella

Who am I?

I hold the chair of Old Testament at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Munich University in Germany. My main area of expertise is Semitic languages, though, which is also the field for which I previously held a chair at Leiden University in the Netherlands for fifteen years (eventually, however, Munich made me an offer one cannot refuse). Hence my main occupation concerns the interpretation of ancient texts in exotic languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, and others, mostly at the baseline of individual words, grammatical forms, and syntactic constructions. Despite the seemingly dry, specialized character of my work, it is, in my view, a lifestyle rather than a job. 

I wrote...

Aramaic: A History of the First World Language

By Holger Gzella,

Book cover of Aramaic: A History of the First World Language

What is my book about?

In this volume—the first complete history of Aramaic from its origins to the present day—Holger Gzella provides an accessible overview of the language perhaps most well known for being spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Gzella, one of the world’s foremost Aramaicists, begins with the earliest evidence of Aramaic in inscriptions from the beginning of the first millennium BCE, then traces its emergence as the first world language when it became the administrative tongue of the great ancient Near Eastern empires. He also pays due diligence to the sacred role of Aramaic within Judaism, its place in the Islamic world, and its contact with other regional languages, before concluding with a glimpse into modern uses of Aramaic. 

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The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence

By Balthasar Gracian,

Book cover of The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence

Why this book?

Academic institutions are competitive environments governed not only by the zest to enrich and transmit knowledge, but also by politics, vanity, and caprices. In many respects, they resemble life at a royal court as described by the seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracián. His Pocket Oracle is chock-full of advice, in the form of maximally compact yet hauntingly beautifully written maxims, on how to penetrate through the appearance of things. Imbued in the art of discernment of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he repeatedly singles out the essential qualities that make possible successful choices in academic life as well, such as taste, judgment, and an eye for talent. One of his aphorisms (no. 4) is particularly dear to me: scholarship and courage make immortal, because that is what they themselves are.

The Mathematician's Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field

By Jacques Hadamard,

Book cover of The Mathematician's Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field

Why this book?

Scholarship, regardless of the particular field, is always a creative process. Craft and method, the fruits of a rigorous education and hard work, are essential prerequisites, but genuine breakthroughs often seem to result from some mysterious incubation: a wild dance of ideas that emerge from the subconscious, stirred up by the keen will to understand something. Only a few of them eventually make it, by way of sensual representations, to the surface of consciousness, where they are formed and articulated by logic and language. In this book, the great French mathematician Jacques Hadamard captivatingly describes his investigation into the psychological underpinnings of creativity. He stresses the role of images and emotions in thought processes. I have always liked his conclusion that every significant invention requires at least some poetic feel.

Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature

By L.D. Reynolds, N.G. Wilson,

Book cover of Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature

Why this book?

For half a century, this classic has introduced students to the ways and circumstances in which Greek and Latin texts, often seen as the pillars of any literate education, were transmitted from Antiquity throughout the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. While it is, despite its crisp and lucid presentation, a highly technical manual, it singles out, based on robust empirical evidence, the importance of tradition and unassuming daily labor in the formation and preservation of knowledge. The effects of unconscious or intentional changes in the manual transmission of ancient texts also constitute the core matter of my own field, philology. On a more personal note, I cherish fond memories of a class on Greek textual criticism by Nigel Wilson when I was an undergraduate at Oxford some thirty years ago.

The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933

By Fritz Ringer,

Book cover of The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933

Why this book?

Many ideas and concepts still common in the more traditional branches of Humanities belong to the intellectual heritage of the nineteenth century. This is also the time when my own field, Semitic Philology, emerged as a professionalized discipline. Fritz Ringer, himself a German-born emigree to the US, provides a rigorous analysis of the social background and self-understanding of German academic elites during that formative period until the collapse of their natural habitat in the catastrophe of the Second World War. His work is a demanding yet rewarding read because it brings to the fore the institutional underpinnings of scholarship. It shows how great an impact societal context has on scholarly achievements, and thus contributes to a better, historically sensitive, understanding of the specific environment in which academic life generally takes place.

Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh,

Book cover of Brideshead Revisited

Why this book?

Especially when dealing with often highly abstract matters of spelling and grammar in ancient manuscripts and inscriptions, as I do most of the time, it is essential to cultivate the affective side of one’s personality in order not to become a boring number cruncher. Brideshead Revisited offers much more than a melancholic farewell to the lost world of the old British upper class through the eyes of a history student-turned painter and his special friendship with an ill-fated noble family. The playful tone camouflages many profound reflections on art, friendship, and conversion. As I received my undergraduate training at Oxford, like the two protagonists, and am myself a convert to Catholicism, this book also appeals to me for biographical reasons. A hardcover edition for regular re-reading is strongly recommended.

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