08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

Continue reading

08/10/14

Dave Clark Five


We’re sitting on the front deck listening to British Sixties Radio, an internet radio station we like and listen to a lot, and they just played the Dave Clark Five doing Glad All Over.

That song came out on the UK charts in January, 1964, reaching North America a bit later.

Fifty years ago this year. I was a young teenager then, not long moved to a new apartment, going to high school, and listening to the music of the British Invasion on the transistor radio I carried everywhere with me. In another year or so, I would be moved by the music to buy my own guitar and learn to play.

Between 1964 and 1967, the Dave Clark Five had 17 top 40 hits on the Billboard charts and 12 on their UK charts. I know them all.

What always surprises me is that, when I hear a song like that, something from so long ago, I still know every word of every lyric. And most of the time I can place myself in the place and time(s) when I heard it. Memory is a strange force. I can’t always remember what I had for breakfast (if I even have it), but I can almost always recall the words of a song from 50 years ago.

The Dave Clark Five, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Marianne Faithfull, Pentangle, Donovan, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, the Moody Blues… Such talent, such passion, such creativity. Big influences on me, culturally. Still are. Embedded in my memory.

I have a lot of their music and similar music from the 60s and 70s on vinyl and in most cases on CD, with a few oddities like the JSD band, solely on MP3. They are my personal time machine back to a younger, less complicated time. The innocence and naïveté of youth.

Will there ever come a time when this music doesn’t move me? I hope not. These songs bind Susan and I in an emotional way and I would not want that to ever dissipate.

08/9/14

Finding my muse in Montaigne


Montaigne

Muse: a source of inspiration; especially a guiding genius; the imaginary force thought to provide inspiration to poets, writers, artists, etc.

A muse, for modern writers, is that indefinable force that drives us to write. It’s part imagination, part inspiration. I suspect there’s a heady brew of psychology and biology at work, too.

Why write instead of, say, paint? Or sculpt? Or compose? I don’t know. It just is, for me, the thing my muse – however you define that – compels me to pursue. It compels others, though in different ways, and many in much more creative and innovative ways than I have in me. But nonetheless, writing fulfills a basic need in me. Scripturient, after all.

The inspiration part is easier to explain, I suppose, at least from my perspective. It’s a long list of people whose work, whose writing, whose ideas, whose politics, art, music, lives and contributions move me. My problem has always been my eclectic tastes and interests, and my grasshopper-like habit of jumping from topic to topic (albeit passionately).

What do Darwin, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Thucydides, Cliff Edwards, Ana Valenzuela, Han Shan, Gandhi, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Napleon, the Three Stooges, Shakespeare, Monty Python, Emanuel Lasker, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, my father, Henry Hudson, the Beatles, Frank Herbert, Don Marquis, Eric Clapton and Omar Khayyam have in common?

Not much – except that they are inspirational to me. For very different reasons, of course, in different ways and touching very different parts of my life and my activities. They are, of course, a mere handful of the total; the list is far too long to present here. Inspiration is composed of many fine details; a multitude of threads that weave our lives, not just big swatches.

Continue reading

08/1/14

Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures


Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.
Continue reading

07/10/14

Lawrence in Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
Continue reading

06/26/14

The Death of Handwriting?


I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia – which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.
Continue reading