The Penguin Classics Book

Did you know there is a card game played in Japan at the New Year, called uta-garuta, where 100 cards have a full poem on each — traditionally taken from their classical poets — and another 100 have just the final line. Players take turn reading the poem from the deck, while the others race to find its concluding line from the cards with the final lines. I didn’t until I read about it on page 111 of The Penguin Classics Book, by Henry Eliot.

(I think that’s a wonderful game idea and wish someone would do a similar game for Western poets… although I understand that not all western forms fit the card-size restrictions of the game…)

It’s the sort of delightful, fact-and-fun-filled book that encourages browsing to uncover this and so many other tidbits of information about books, their authors, and their culture. I recently added Eliot’s  book to my own library and have spent many hours cheerfully rambling through it. Every page seems to have something to learn and enjoy. It’s the sort of coffee-table-toilet reading book that can suck you in for hours.

The publisher’s description notes,

The Penguin Classics Book covers all the greatest works of fiction, poetry, drama, history, and philosophy in between, this reader’s companion encompasses 500 authors, 1,200 books, and 4,000 years of world literature, from ancient Mesopotamia to World War I. Filled with stories of the series’ UK origin, author biographies, short book summaries and recommendations, and illustrated with historic Penguin Classic covers, The Penguin Classics Book is an entertaining historic look at the earliest chapters of the world’s best-known Classics publisher.

The author, Henry Eliot is, according to the same site, “Creative Editor of Penguin Classics.” The book is an ambitious, well-designed look at the history of one of the world’s most famous publishing imprints: Penguin Classics. The line began in 1946 as a means to make classic literature available to the general public at an affordable price. The books quickly became favourites both for booksellers and academics, and provided a publishing outlet for translators and editors unlike any seen before.

The first title published in the series was a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and in its first decade, the line had a mere 60 titles to its name. Today, it has some 1,200 titles, covering literature from the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic to modern, international authors. And everything in between: the line has plenty of English-speaking authors, but also translations of works originally written in French, Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Norse, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Old English, Greek, Latin, and many more languages. And not just literature: there is poetry, philosophy, biography, history, plays, memoirs, folk tales, and scripture. Four millennia of the written word is here.

For those of us who love reading, this series has provided a wonderful opportunity to open windows into other cultures, other communities. And Eliot’s book is like the exquisite aperitif before the meal.

Eliot’s book draws a somewhat fuzzy line at World War I (including some authors who wrote later, but also missing some like Don Marquis and Marcel Proust who wrote during that period) , which I found a trifle disappointing, since there have been many modern books published in the line since then. I live in hope that a second volume, following from the chronology of the first, will be published. But as I wait, this volume engages me.

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The Long Read part 2

Books!

In my previous post I wrote about reading during the lockdown, particularly delving into some longer reads like War and Peace. This time gives us ample opportunity to tackle books that may have daunted us before. And, as I previously wrote, some of these are my ‘books-to-read-upon-retirement’ titles.

Well, I recently finished War and Peace and still think it’s worth tackling, although I also believe Tolstoy could have benefitted from a more parsimonious editor (speaking as a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor)

The story is full of drama, passion, war, and romance, but he all-too-often meandered from the plot into commentary about war, Napoleon, Kutuzov, politics, and leadership. These commentaries tend to obfuscate the story and dilute the drama. In fact, ninety percent of the epilogue could be discarded to the benefit of the pacing. But I digress. What I wanted to write about here are some other reading choices for our lockdown, some of which are pictured above.

Arabian NightsFirst, the Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. Thanks to Disney and Hollywood, many people are aware of some portions of this collection of tales such as the stories about Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin, but there are so many, many more tales in these books. If you even read just one story a night (plus the apocryphal material such as Sinbad), it would take more than three years to finish them all. But most of the stories (nights) are relatively short, so you can read two or three or even more at one sitting.

Since the tales tend to lead from one to another (in the classic cliffhanger tradition, they were spun out to keep the prince occupied so he wouldn’t kill the storyteller, although sometimes the connections are a bit thin), reading more than one at a time helps keep the continuity of the tales.

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Thoreau and Buddhism

Henry David ThoreauIn his introduction to Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings (Bantam Books, 1962-1981), Joseph Wood Krutch described Henry David Thoreau’s writings as having four “distinct subjects”, which I paraphrase somewhat as:

  1. The life of quiet desperation most men live;
  2. The economic fallacy that is responsible for their condition
  3. The delights yielded from a simple life close to Nature, and
  4. The higher laws which people intuitively realize from a gentle life in Nature.

These appear similar in form to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhist philosophy:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

The parallels are, to me, striking. Not that Thoreau was a Buddhist, mind you, not as we might consider one today, but he was familiar with many Eastern and Oriental scriptures. As were many of his transcendentalist contemporaries – Ralph Waldo Emerson (his mentor) and Walt Whitman in particular. Thoreau and his friends were actually more familiar with Hindu texts initially and Thoreau wrote enthusiastically about them.

In 1845, he read the Bhagavad Gita, and later wrote, “The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.” Thoreau had on his bookshelf his copy of the Gita when he stayed at Walden Pond, and he read it during his time there.

He wrote in Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Thoreau’s Walden was even the subject of a course on year at the University of Chicago. In the course description, it said, “Both books begin with despair and defiance and end with coming to some understanding of the ways of action and of knowledge, of devotion and nature, of self and the cosmos.”

Of course, this was during the American intelligensia’s first contact with alternate (and Eastern) philosophies, and it became a sort of intellectual epiphany that awakened a great creative surge barely a century after the nation was formed. Unlike today, many Americans in the 19th century were open to, even eager to learn about other cultures, other faiths, other philosophies. One cannot even imagine the current president and his followers learning, much less learning about an Asian philosophy.

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Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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Gilgamesh four thousand years later

GilgameshGilgamesh continues to enthrall us, even after more than 100 years of translations and interpretations. The story continues to be told and retold and even re-imagined. There’s even a children’s version of the tale.

You can read a version here, in PDF format or an online version here.Translations and transliterations (if you know your Akkadian…) are here. There was likely an oral version shared even before writing was invented – if you really want to know what that might have sounded like, listen to some modern recordings of old Babylonian poetry here.

Gilgamesh is not simply humankind’s earliest written legend – it’s also a powerful story that tells us about what it means to be human, to be part of a greater community. It’s about growing up, about friendship, fear, loss, death, sex, magic, faith, pride, finding wisdom and the meaning of life.

Several texts of the Gilgamesh epic have been found, all of them fragmentary, so part of the retelling is collecting the pieces and assembling them into a whole. They are also in other languages including Elamite and Hurrian. It is also a personal tale based on a man many archaeologists believe to have been real: the King of the city-state of Uruk,* some time between 2750 and 2500 BCE.

While the story itself dates back to the late third millennium BCE, the earliest tablets – Sumerian versions of the epic – date come from the city of Ur around 2150-2000 BCE. The Akkadian version is from about 1900 BCE.

The Gilgamesh story is the earliest work of literature known, and was so popular it spread throughout the great Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Akkad and others. The great epic was still being repeated and written down on clay tablets during the Hittite rule a thousand years later. That alone shows the power of its storytelling.

Some parts – like the Flood myth – even made their way into the Bible, albeit wrapped in a different religious blanket.Four thousand years later, this story still captures our imagination.
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Dictionary vs Dictionary.com

Concise OEDDid you know that doxastic is a philosophical adjective relating to an individual’s beliefs? Or that doxorubicin was an antibiotic used in treating leukemia? Or that doxy is a 16th century word for mistress and prostitute? That drack is Australian slang for unattractive or dreary? Drabble means to make wet and dirty in muddy water? A downwarp is a broad depression in the earth’s surface? Drail is a weighted fish hook? Dragonnade means quartering troops on a population while dragonet is a small fish but a dragoman is an interpreter? That a dramaturge is a literary editor on a theatre staff?

These are words I read when I was looking up the word doxology last night. They all appear close to doxology, either on the same or the adjacent page. Anyone with even a modicum of curiosity opening a dictionary can find these and other words in your search for the meaning of an unfamiliar or uncommon word. In fact, it’s quite entertaining to simply open a dictionary at any random page and read because you are likely to learn something new each time (well, perhaps less so if you use one of the generic no-name dictionaries you bought in the box store).

My bedside dictionary is the Concise Oxford, but I also have several other Oxford editions, a Random House, Merriam Webster, and Chambers, plus some others. I often refer to several for a more comprehensive understanding of a word. And yes, I do keep one by the bed because I read a lot before sleep and sometimes encounter unfamiliar words. Oxford because it’s simply the best, I like the layout and typography, and it’s English, not American.
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