03/2/14

Reading: A Canadian tragedy… or not?


World Reading Map
The map above might show the making of a serious tragedy for Western and especially Canadian culture. It indicates in colour which nations read the most. Yellow is the second lowest group. Canada is coloured yellow.

TV zombiesIn this survey, Canada ranks 10th – from the bottom! Twenty countries above us have populations which, on the average, read more per week than we do. That surprises and shocks me. And it disappoints me no end.

I’m not only a voracious reader, I’m passionate about books, language, reading and writing, and have been on the library board for 20 years actively helping it grow and develop. Is it a futile task?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I’ve seen the library grow more and more into a vital community resource in the past two decades. It has more users, more books and more reads than ever. That flies in the face of what the map suggests.

The map showed up on Facebook via Gizmodo, The stats come from the NOP World Culture Score (TM) Index (press release here). They’re scary – but are they accurate? They’re certainly not recent: the data were collected between December 2004 and February 2005.

Here are the 30 countries, ranked by the number of hours people there read every week:

  1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
  2. Thailand — 9:24
  3. China — 8:00
  4. Philippines — 7:36
  5. Egypt — 7:30
  6. Czech Republic — 7:24
  7. Russia — 7:06
  8. Sweden — 6:54
  9. France — 6:54
  10. Hungary — 6:48
  11. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
  12. Hong Kong — 6:42
  13. Poland — 6:30
  14. Venezuela — 6:24
  15. South Africa — 6:18
  16. Australia — 6:18
  17. Indonesia — 6:00
  18. Argentina — 5:54
  19. Turkey — 5:54
  20. Spain — 5:48
  21. Canada — 5:48
  22. Germany — 5:42
  23. USA — 5:42
  24. Italy — 5:36
  25. Mexico — 5:30
  26. U.K. — 5:18
  27. Brazil — 5:12
  28. Taiwan — 5:00
  29. Japan — 4:06
  30. Korea — 3:06

Canada is listed well below the global average of 6.5 hours a week. Five-point-four-eight hours translates into a mere 49 minutes a day, on average. Are we losing our minds to TV?

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02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things - De Rerum Natura -  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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02/14/14

Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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02/8/14

Raisin and sourdough this week


raisin bread disasterWhile I haven’t tried to make a sourdough raisin bread yet, that idea occurred to me while I was making my latest breads, this week. I’m sure it would be a good mix, but I’ll have to build my levain up again, since I used all my countertop levain in yesterday’s bread (about 350g).

I still have a culture in the fridge, however, and will take some out to get it going in the warmer kitchen, today.

I made a medium-sized sourdough loaf, and two smaller raisin-cinnamon loaves, Friday. Somewhat ambitious of me, but with mixed results.

raisin bread disasterTwo? You ask. Yes, because my first loaf was a mess. It stuck in the pan and broke at the cinnamon-spread layer when I attempted to get it free of the pan. Very disappointing. I decided to try another while I still had the ingredients on the counter. I wanted to offer Susan a good-looking loaf, Saturday morning. Presentation matters.

I’m trying to determine the best way to make a raisin-cinnamon bread that combines the nicest combination of  texture, flavour and structure. I have the flavour down pretty well, and the texture is close, but in most of my efforts, the bread has de-laminated where the layers of cinnamon spread are rolled into the dough. Sometimes just a bit, sometimes more. An elegant structure eludes me somewhat.

raisin bread disaster

My first effort at raisin-cinnamon bread was a recipe from the 300 Best Canadian Bread Machine Recipes book. It combines everything in the machine, but used only a small amount of cinnamon (1 tsp). It didn’t make the bread very flavourful. While edible, it wasn’t spectacular.

I like more cinnamon, but because it’s a yeast inhibitor, I chose to put more (1 Tbsp) into a spread that could be used in a swirl in the bread itself.  I tried that in a bread a couple of weeks ago, with modest success. The idea works; the technique needs refinement.

I used molasses instead of sugar in the recipe, but otherwise used the book’s basic 1.5 lb. loaf recipe as presented for Friday’s loaves.

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02/3/14

Corn and other breads


Corn breadThe last loaf of January, 2014 was a machine-made corn bread, made using a recipe from Washburn’s & Butt’s 300 Best Canadian Bread Machine Recipes book that I’ve mentioned previously. It’s a good book for bread machine users.

Unlike my previous efforts to tinker with bread recipes, I used the basic, printed 1.5-lb. recipe without any alterations this time (not even in the salt). Medium crust setting, basic (white) bread menu selection. The results were good, if not spectacular.

The recipe calls for 1/3rd cup of cornmeal. I used a commonly-available, supermarket brand, the sort I often use for dusting pans, parchment paper and the pizza peel, to prevent sticking. However, it didn’t really give the bread a noticeable corn flavour or the mealy/gritty texture one expects in corn bread and muffins.

I later found a bag of Bob’s Red Mill medium grind cornmeal which is less refined and will likely impart more flavour next time I make this bread, and likely heighten the texture.

Bob’s Red Mill products are available at several local supermarkets. I don’t know what sort of cornmeal is available at the local Bulk Barn, but will check next time I’m there.

Corn breadThe bread came out with a nice, light and distinctly yellow crumb, consistent throughout the loaf and evenly cooked. It had a light top crust, but a bit crunchier side and bottom.

The flavour is pleasant – in part because the recipe called for an egg (and I had some free-range eggs on hand, which are always tasty), 1 tbsp honey, and 1/4 cup skim milk powder. These add to both the texture and taste.

We tried the bread with soup one day, and with beans-on-toast the next. The cornmeal makes for a crumb that doesn’t stay together as well as an all-wheat bread, so it has a tendency to break apart. It toasts well, however. This week we will likely finish the loaf with some four-bean chili (not, of course chili con carne, which is Texan, not a Mexican dish) one night for supper.

Next time I will try some variations with this bread, aside from using the better cornmeal. I will look up cornmeal recipes online, too, to see what amounts others recommend. I don’t know if 1/3rd cup is sufficient, or if additional cornmeal will make the crumb even more friable.

I may add some gluten flour to boost the stickiness; this may avoid the tendency for the bread to crumble. I may also try buttermilk instead of water and milk powder. I’d also like to try substituting agave syrup or even molasses for honey, and maybe even some Osprey bread flour (from the K2 mill in Beeton) for a portion of the unbleached white.
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01/29/14

Reading Thucydides at last


BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

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