Editor’s note: The Conversation Canada asked our academic authors to share some recommended reading. In this instalment, Michael Armstrong, an operations research professor at Brock University who has written for The Conversation Canada on topics as diverse as student success rates in school to the mathematics of Civil War battle, shares the top three books that he recommends for guidance on making the most of your career at any age.
Here are three books that I often recommend to my students and friends. All are practical guides that have stood the test of time. The first will help you start your career, the second will help you succeed in it and the third will help you profit from it.
A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers
by Richard N. Bolles (Non-fiction. Paperback, 2016 and others. Ten Speed Press.)
This is a popular guide for job seekers. Like most such books, it gives advice on the mechanical details of job hunting, such as good ways to organize a resume.
More importantly — and less commonly — it helps people figure out what they want to do with their lives. What kind of career will best fit your personality? Will you be happier working with people or with data?
The book is an obvious fit for graduates seeking their first job. But it could also help teenagers choose the best education to pursue after high school, or adults trying to make their careers more satisfying.
by R. Richard Ritti, Steve Levy and Neil Toucher (Non-fiction. Hardcover, 2016 and others. Chicago Business Press.)
Don’t let the academic-sounding subtitle deter you. This is a highly readable book. It consists of short stories or parables that illustrate how people behave and interact at work.
Every workplace has an official structure and formal rules. But workplaces contain people with individual personalities and relationships. This book will help you understand the unofficial structures and unwritten rules, before they get you into trouble.
I often recommend The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know to people starting their first job. It would be especially good for someone promoted to their first management or supervisory role.
The Common Sense Guide to Successful Financial Planning
by David Chilton (Non-fiction. Paperback, 2002 and others. Stoddart.)
Once you receive your first paycheque, you’ll want to read this beginner’s guide to personal finance. It covers the basics of investing: retirement savings, mutual funds, etc. It also introduces a lot of other financial topics: savings versus spending, insurance that you do or don’t need, and so on.
This probably isn’t the only financial guide you’ll ever need, but it is a good first one. I typically recommend it to recent graduates starting their careers. But it also suits mature adults dealing with money issues for the first time, perhaps after the death or divorce of their spouse.
So warns the inscription on the gates of the inferno, the first realm of Dante Alighieri’s celebrated work, now known as the Divine Comedy. “La Commedia”, as Dante originally named it, is an imaginary journey through the three realms of the afterlife: inferno (hell), purgatorio (purgatory) and paradiso (heaven).
It might not sound all that funny, but Dante called his epic poem a comedy because, unlike tragedies that begin on a high note and end tragically, comedies begin badly but end well. The poem indeed ends well, with the protagonist, also named Dante, reaching his desired destination – heaven – a place of beauty and calm, light and ultimate good. Conversely, the inferno is dark, morose and inhabited by irredeemable sinners.
Dante wrote the comedy during his exile from Florence between 1302 and his death in 1321. It is the first significant text written in the Italian vernacular and is written in terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme invented by the author.
Dante set the beginning of the story on Holy Thursday, 1300, when he was 35-years-old. He alludes to being “middle aged” in the opening lines of the poem:
Halfway through our life’s journey
I woke to find myself within a dark wood
because I had strayed from the correct path.
Oh how hard it is to describe
how harsh and tough that savage wood was
The very thought of it renews the fear!
To hell, and back again
At the beginning of Inferno, Dante alludes to the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelation. In a dark wood, three menacing beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf – respectively symbolising lust, pride and greed – prevent Dante from climbing a mountain.
As Dante despairs, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears, announcing that he has been sent to guide him. They must first descend into hell, a cone-shaped crater that was caused by the fall of Lucifer.
Before beginning the journey, and in keeping with the classical epic tradition, Dante invokes the goddesses known as muses to inspire him, something he will do at the beginning of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Dante and Virgil must pass through nine circles of hell, in which the punishments increase in severity to match the gravity of the vices being punished. In the first circle are mythological and historical characters who died before Christianity was founded and were therefore not initiated through baptism. Lingering here are noble and virtuous characters – like Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Cicero, and Ovid.
In the second circle, Dante is distraught by the cruelty of the punishment he observes. There, he encounters the souls of the lustful, including the legendary Tristan and Isolde and the historical Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo. Murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother, Giovanni Malatesta, these two souls drift aimlessly, their bodies fused together as punishment for adultery. They are joined for eternity, inverting the biblical prescription in Matthew that “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
In the remaining seven circles of hell, Dante and Virgil observe punishments that are so grisly that sinners are reduced to grotesque conditions. These inspired the frescoes depicting the final judgement day that the painter Giotto painted around the walls and ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
The writer Dante’s friend and compatriot, Giotto was commissioned to paint the inside of the chapel by the son of an infamous usurer that Dante identifies in the seventh circle of hell. There, men with moneybags hanging round their necks flick off flames, just as dogs shoo away insects in summer.
In the next, the circle of the fraudulent, Dante and Virgil encounter popes guilty of simony (or the selling of church services). Having inverted the moral order, they face an eternity buried upside down with their heads in the trenches. Only their legs can be seen from above, waving around frantically.
In the ninth circle, the pilgrims see the Count Ugolino chomping on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the punishment for treachery. In reality Ugolino conspired against his party, the Ghibellines, to bring the opposing Guelfs to power. The Archbishop later betrayed and imprisoned Ugolino with his offspring, gradually starving them to death.
Finally the pilgrims arrive at the centre of the earth, where they must scale the hairy sides of Lucifer to be able to ascend to the surface of the earth to get to purgatory, where they must be cleaned of the stain of hell. At the entrance of purgatory, an angel inscribes the letter “P” on Dante’s forehead seven times with the tip of his sword, saying “Make sure you cleanse these wounds when you are inside”. Each “P” stands for piaghe (wounds) that form from peccati (sins). Dante must work off and cleanse away each of them in the seven terraces of purgatory. As he leaves each terrace repented, the angel brushes his forehead, removing one of the letters.
Renewed and purified, Dante is now disposed to rise to “the stars”. Drawing on the writings of Saint Augustine, a woman called Beatrice, who has taken over from Virgil and guides Dante through heaven, explains that God’s creations, exiled to earth, long to return to their place of origin. Dante and Beatrice ascend through several heavens, the moon, and the planets, to the Empyrean, the heaven of divine peace. Like Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso ends with a reference to the stars:
Here high fantasy lost its impulse but my will and desire were already propelled, as a wheel is equally moved by the love that moves the sun and other stars.
Dante through the ages
Early commentators focused on interpreting the work as an allegory for the life of Jesus. In his Life of Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, classified Dante as a prophet and his poem a prophecy. Humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) viewed the poem as a metaphor for the soul’s journey back to God, and Neapolitan political philosopher Giambatista Vico (1668-1744) saw the Divine Comedy as a product of its barbarous time and Dante as the historian of his age, labelling him the Tuscan Homer.
More recently the Divine Comedy has inspired many creative works including art, architecture, literature, music, radio, film, television, comics, animations, digital arts, computer games and even a papal encyclical, Deus caritas est (2006), which, according to Pope Benedict XVI was inspired by the final verse of Paradiso.
It is most often Dante’s Inferno, its graphic imagery and twisted characters, that has inspired litterateurs like Chaucer, Milton, Honoré de Balzac, Marx, Elliot, Forster, Beckett, Primo Levy and Borges.
Few films have incorporated the entire epic tale. The earliest silent films, in 1911 (L’Inferno) and 1924 (Dante’s Inferno), and the first motion picture in 1935 (also Dante’s Inferno) all focused on the creatures and events of the inferno.
Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips’s multi-award winning 1990 A TV Dante juxtaposes narration by John Gielgud, electronic images and sounds, with asides by experts, such as explanations of the three “beasts” by David Attenborough. A 2010 animation and 2012 documentary focus on the horror of the inferno, while another terrifying 2010 animation is based on a video game and departs considerably from the original.
Nor must the inferno be the focus to instil fear or terror. The film American Psycho is among 33 films with no connection to the Divine Comedy that contain, collectively, 64 occurrences of the iconic phrase at the gates of the inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” a phrase that still inspires dread and terror in the audience almost 700 years later.