Malory then and now

Caxton's MaloryI recently started reading Malory in the original – that is, the language that Caxton printed in. Not the typeface Caxton used, since that would be harder to read, but rendered in a modern serif face. Caxton initially used black letter type (aka gothic) – pretty much all the early printers used it, although each printer had his own dies and styles. However, he did move to a more easily-read, more-rounded typeface by around 1490, a few years after he printed Malory’s book. Still, the early typefaces used in all incunabula take a bit more mental effort to decipher because they are not as familiar to us as our modern letter forms and often the type is set more densely than we would today, often without the same punctuation and the paragraph breaks we use today.

Malory’s themes are remarkably modern: heroism, faith, love, sex, betrayal, scheming,  politics, war… the stuff of life. Change from swords to light sabres and you’d have a scifi novel or space opera; to six-shooters and you’d have a western. That’s one of the reasons to read him: to remind ourselves that while technology advances, humans are still motivated by the same emotions and behaviour that have been around since the Stone Age.

I’m quite enjoying the reading, especially when it makes me stop and think about a word that has caused me to stumble. Not to mention the story is one I know well, and have read in many forms and seen in movies, too. Perhaps the best known and most readable of the works he inspired is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which I’ve read at least twice. It’s one of the few books that have moved me to tears.

William Caxton was, as you know, England’s first printer, but he was also a translator and editor with a passion for sharing what he considered the greatest English literature. And he was also England’s first retail bookseller. The first book he printed at his Westminster press, was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in 1476. In all, he printed more than 100 books.

He printed Malory’s famous work, Le Morte d’Arthur (aka Le Morte Darthur) in 1485, and of that first printing only two copies survive. Malory’s story proved a bestseller, and created a passion among readers for the Arthurian Romances and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table that continues today. It influenced later writers like Tennyson, Twain, T.H. White and Steinbeck (and, yes, Monty Python…).

There were five editions printed before 1500. Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reprinted Le Morte D’Arthur in the first illustrated edition, 1498. That’s a beautiful work even today.
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Reading as a forgotten art

ReadingEarlier this month (February, 2018), the Globe & Mail published an essay by author Michael Harris titled, “I have forgotten how to read.” In it, he recounted how he recently tried to read a single chapter of a book, but failed. Frustrated, instead turned to TV:

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Which, I think, is the poor choice of alternatives. Giving up doesn’t improve the skill set or fix the problem. As the American politician Claude Pepper is alleged to have said, “Life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.” Harris, it seems, stopped pedalling before he was even through a mere chapter.

If, as Harris also writes, “mind is plastic,” and he believes his reading skills have diminished, then I would think the solution would be to retrain his mind, to relearn those skills, to strengthen the neural pathways associated with reading and comprehension, rather than continue to encourage them to atrophy. Get back on the bike and pedal harder. Read more, not less. As Groucho Marx quipped: *

I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.

Harris hadn’t become illiterate or dyslexic: his reading habits had changed as he immersed himself deeper into today’s social-media-driven technology; a medium that encourages short, emotion-filled, reactive – even knee-jerk – content, the stuff of immediate response, outburst and instant memes, rather than the stuff of deep thought. It’s a self-inflicted wound:

When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served. This doesn’t mean we’re reading less – not at all. In fact, we live in a text-gorged society in which the most fleeting thought is a thumb-dash away from posterity. What’s at stake is not whether we read. It’s how we read… The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader.

I think the many of us who share part of our lives online and are in constant communication with the social media world through devices understand. Even a passing attempt to keep up with the sheer volume of material on a Facebook timeline or Twitter feed runs in opposition to depth and focus. It becomes the Red Queen’s Race – you run as fast as you can in order to simply stay in the same place. But surrendering to it isn’t the answer.
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Does poetry make things happen in 2018?

WB Yeats on poetryI was thinking about how little poets seem to matter to modern political administrations. Maybe to modern society as a whole. Their light has, it seems, been waning for several decades as our collective attention shifts.

I was thinking about what an odd, awkward fit it would be for a poet to be invited to today’s anti-literacy White House. Would he or she have to start each conversation with the question “Have you read…” dreading the answer would be a blank stare, a silent shake of the head and the turning of eyes to smartphones and TVs blaring Faux News.

I was thinking of how John Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his 1961 inauguration. Poetry still mattered then. Of how Carter, Clinton and Obama also invited poets to read at their inaugurations. Poetry seemed to fade after Kennedy, possibly because the Vietnam War invited more protest than introspection. Possibly because his death cut down many muses, as well. Possibly because we turned increasingly to TV and then the internet as our source of inspiration, not books. A 2015 CNN article noted:

The cult of people who buy books of poetry in the U.S. is almost certainly dwarfed by the 20 million or so viewers who watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones.”

A mere five poets were invited to attend and read at presidential inaugurations in more than 50 years. The CNN article noted:

Many Americans’ exposure to poetry today is limited to inspirational snippets on fridge magnets or a few verses recited every four years when a poet is trotted out at a presidential inauguration.

But that’s only true for Democratic presidents. Republicans shy from poets. At the Trump inauguration? None: just a handful of wannabe celebrities, some sycophants and has-beens. No poets, no authors, no reading, no evidence of culture deeper than the superficial. Not even as good as a single episode of America’s Got Talent.

Thus is the new world of politics: reduced to a small screen and a handful of words. No deep insight, no big reads. Is poetry disappearing from our lives? Sublimating to texting, Twitter, Instagram and such platforms that require little to no thought, but demand instant response and mindless reaction?
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Collingwood’s first post-literate council

Post-literacyAt the Corporate & Community Services standing committee meeting this week, the committee discussed the Art on the Street festival, its operation and management to be taken over by the BIA. That’s probably a good thing because any affinity to culture and cultural events at the council table evaporated early this term. A cup of yogurt has more culture in it than The Block has. The whole ‘cultural economy’ thing and all the benefits that cultural tourism can bring has simply flown away this term.*

That report led to a discussion of a local Word on the Street festival, a “national celebration of literacy and the written word.” Apparently there is a move afoot to bring it back (it’s held in September, so I suppose that won’t be until fall 2018). Councillor Kevin Lloyd semi-jokingly suggested that council entertain regular poetry readings at the start of each council meeting to help publicize the event. There was an uncomfortable silence at the committee table (The Block not being able to easily recognize irony or sarcasm).

The stolid faces of The Block collective were shaken by his (somewhat sarcastic) suggestion. The idea that they might have to sit, in stony Politburo-like silence while someone read a poem clearly unnerved them. Even Sleepy Councillor Ecclestone tossed and turned in his sleep, in the grips of a bad dream where words and phrases were dancing around him with menace and malice.

How were they supposed to respond to poetry? Would they make the usual banal “gee that was swell” comments they toss out like candy to staff for run-of-the-mill reports? Or – a frightening thought – would they be expected to comment intelligently and coherently on the nature of the poem, its symbolism, its rhyming scheme, its use of metaphor, how it compared with the work of other poets? That would take The Block far from the safety of their comfort zone over the deep intellectual ocean, a place they had never ventured to.

When The Block plumb the depths of their collective intellect, they don’t need a ruler, much less a measuring tape to measure down to their seabed. Their ship of state is already stranded on its shallow reefs. Keep in mind that their greatest collective intellectual achievement this term is a bylaw that prohibits residents from throwing birdseed on their driveway. To expect them to do anything intelligent with culture – you’re better off wishing for something more achievable. Like world peace. Or the overnight reversal of climate change. Or the Rapture.

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Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

Seven plots?When I was in school, back in the last century, I was taught there were three basic plots in which every story ever written could be classified: Man-vs-man, man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself. That was in the days when it wasn’t politically incorrect to use the word man to mean everyone. Today we’d say it differently, use other pronouns, but the meaning is the same.

Three is a bit simplistic, sure. The list has been expanded on by authors, academics and critics ever since. And by robots, too. Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book,The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

  1. Rebellion Against ‘The One
  2. Mystery

Both genres are popular today and should not be overlooked (where would we be without Star Wars or the DaVinci Code?). So it’s really nine plots. Or more? Booker has two variants under the ‘Rags to Riches’ plot: failure and hollow victory. If you include them as separate themes, the seven in the title expands to eleven.

But can one really reduce all writing to such a short list? Do all stories fit so comfortably into these archetypes? Some find it easy to poke holes in such generalizations. Others to broaden the spectrum with more items on their own list.
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Book collecting: snobbery or reading passion?

The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie's/Bridgeman Images
The book has always been a sign of status and refinement; a declaration of self-worth – even for those who hate to read. That’s the lead into a recent piece on Aeon Magazine about book collecting and collectors. It’s also about reading and the snobbery of readers. Fascinating piece.

For me, anyway. Pretty much everything about books and reading fascinates me, from the art to the industry to the neuroscience. I am and always have been a book buyer, proudly taking my place among those “Bookish Fools” referenced in the article’s title. But perhaps from a different part of the podium.

I spent an hour with a painter this week discussing getting a portion of our house repainted. Part of that work involves us moving a lot of books into other rooms. A lot. Many hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Plus the bookshelves. Six large and two small bookcases in the upper hallway alone. And where to put them? One upstairs room is already lined with bookcases and the other rooms have their own, too.

It served to reinforce just how many books we have to think of the time required to unshelve then re-shelve them (in some sort of reasonable order). Many days.

I got two books in the mail yesterday and this morning I ordered another online. Others are somewhere in between, on their way via the post office. I get larger shipments – boxes – from booksellers once or twice a month, plus individual titles. I haunt the local used book stores for more. I still have battered paperbacks I picked up in the 1960s, but most of my personal library is far more recent. That’s because I am mostly a reader. Compulsively, even obsessively, perhaps. But not a fetishist collector as the article describes.

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