08/27/13

Archy and Mehitabel


Archy and MehitabelI can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first cracked open Don Marquis’s book, archy and mehitabel, sitting there among the other books in the basement, black spined, stiff, yellowing pages.  That old book smell.

Perhaps I was 11 or 12, but not much older, because we moved from that house in the summer after my 12th birthday. But I still remember it well.*

The book was one of those oddities on our basement family bookshelf. I ignored it, at first, then looked at the pictures – cartoons by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat . Long after I’d checked out the cartoons, I started reading the text. It was wildly absurd, deeply philosophical, whimsical, silly, obscure, cynical, yet compelling. Way outside my depth. Who was this guy and what was all this nonsense about a cockroach and a typewriter?

Krazy Kat I knew from other books and publications, reprinted strips, and old, faded and brittle  cartoon strips cut out from newspapers and placed in between pages of other books, long since forgotten. Herriman’s wild style of drawing always intrigued me, even as a child.

Perhaps there’s some astrological connection: two months after Herriman’s death, the last of his completed Krazy Kat strips, a full-page Sunday comic, was printed. The date was Sunday, June 25, 1944. That day the British were assaulting Caen, in France, to begin the bloody Operation Epsom. The Allies bombed Toulon. The 8th AF bombers and fighter bombers flew missions to attack bridges and airfields in France as the Allies pushed the Nazis back towards Germany. Ships of the United States Navy and Royal Navy attacked German fortifications at Cherbourg to support American troops taking the city and the entuire Normandy peninsula.

MehitabelI was also born on a Sunday, in June, too. Okay, that’s wild and silly synchronicity and many years later. Just foolin’ with you. Astrology is claptrap. And I digress. Just wanted to put some context around Herriman and throw some misdirection your way. Ignosce mihi, dear reader.

Marquis died years before that, in 1937, after his third or fourth stroke. He was 59. No astrological connection there, I’m afraid. And also long before my time.

The book I opened, back in the early 1960s, seemed impossibly old. Published in 1927. The age of flappers, ukuleles, gin joints. When my father was a boy, not much old than I was when I discovered it. Had he read it then, and kept it ever since? Brought it with him from England after the war, a beloved volume too treasured to part from? Or had he picked up a copy here? I never knew.

Beside it on the shelf was archy’s life of mehitabel, 1933. Both sitting on the bookcase of forgotten volumes, tucked away in the basement, beside bound copies of the Boys’ Own Annual, a first edition of Tarzan, some tattered Mickey Spillane paperbacks, old hardback novels, books on time management, others on handyman skills, a few Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, and odd volumes of an outdated encyclopedia.

All treasures to an inquisitive youngster. But this book hooked me in other ways, a sparked jumped across some subconscious wiring that connected literature, poetry, and writing. And maybe politics, too, although I was too young to realize it then.

Imagine reading these lines from the literary cockroach Archy to his feline friend, Mehitabel, when you were that age:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can but hell’s bells that’s only an explanation
it’s not an excuse.

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08/3/13

The Thousand and One Nights


Arabian NightsI had no idea it was this sexy. The Thousand Nights and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights, aka The Thousand and One Nights – it’s really wonderful, steamy stuff. Every tale is a cliffhanger and you keep wanting to read just one more to see how it turns out. Of course, that was the point of the collection.*

The backstory is rather complicated, but to simplify it: the Sultan beds a virgin one night, then kills her the next day. When  Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks for her sister to be able to say good bye. Then she begins to tell her sister a story. It doesn’t end that night, so the Sultan keeps her alive another night to hear the ending. But that story leads to another, and another, and so on. So for three years she keeps up a series of interwoven, intricate tales. In the end, he lets her live.

It’s like the 10th-century version of the TV series, 24. Sex, violence, evil, cunning, violence, murder, betrayal, seduction, magic, demons… it’s all there. In written form, of course, not video.

Yeah, and it’s violent, misogynistic and full of superstition and the supernatural. But you have to give it some laxity: some of it dates back from the 8th century CE. And it’s from a culture that, even today, is remarkably, embarrassingly misogynist. But then, Shakespeare wrote in an age of similar misogyny – although he managed to soar above it, by creating strong, intelligent and witty female characters. The Arabian nights has a few of them, too, albeit not usually in the forefront (and not like Shakespeare’s women).

You probably think you know some of the stories because you’ve seen a Disney cartoon or some Hollywood movie: Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Aladdin and His Lamp. Sorry, but they were added to the collection by later European translators. They’re good stories, mind you, just not part of the original collection.**

I know, that disappointed me at first, too. But after a few pages into Powys Mather’s four-volume translation, I was hooked. The tales are curious, intriguing and compelling. No wonder the Sultan wanted to hear the next part.

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07/21/13

Kill the Apostrophe? Rubbish! Keep it!


Kill the ApostropheA site has popped up with one of the stupidest ideas about English I’ve read in the past decade or two. It’s called Kill the Apostrophe. Subtle.

At first, I thought it was a joke, a spoof. After all, how can one realistically get rid of perhaps the most significant element of punctuation based on the rantings of a website lunatic? And some of the counterpoint sites like Humbleapostrophe seemed created in a sense of camaraderie humour.

But no, on further reading, it’s as real as any of the other wingnut sites, from chemtrails to “psychic” readings to UFOs. Most of which just add to the background noise online, rather than contributing to something useful or encouraging public engagement.

The site’s author writes,

This website is for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.

Well, it may confuse poorly-educated and illiterate people, or even ESL learners new to the task, but that’s really just a minority. Most of us understand that when Fats Waller wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ he included the apostrophes for a reason (and didn’t mean to have his title changed to “Am Not Misbehaving’ by anti-apostrophe-ites).

We know Bob Dylan didn’t mean to sing, “It is not any use in turning on your lights, babe” or even “It aint no use in turning…” When you drop the apostrophe, you have to replace the missing letters the apostrophe represents, otherwise you’re just making spelling mistakes. Egregious ones at that.

Clearly the author of this website was stung by a rebuke from someone over misuse, and feels pouty.

Kill the Apostrophe claims the punctuation is redundant, wasteful, “one more tool of snobbery,” “timeconsuming” (sic – apparently hyphens are snobbery too),”impede communication and understanding” and “a distraction for otherwise reasonable and intelligent people.

What a load of codswallop. It’s like a four-year old having a tantrum because he doesn’t want to have a nap. He’s not sleepy. We’re being mean to him. He wants to play with his friends. He doesn’t like lima beans. Wah, wah, wah.

Stop whining and educate yourself. English is tough, sure. Suck it up.

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07/13/13

Putdownable books?


Boring bookA recent article in The Independent said that J.K. Rowling’s new book and the abysmally-written 50 Shades of Grey were among the books most put down by readers as unfinishable. Putdownable. A description no author or publisher relishes.

They joined titles like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged and Catch 22 as books readers gave up the struggle to finish. Personally, I hesitate to put 50 Shades in the same category as anything even vaguely literary, let alone the likes of Joseph Heller and J.R. Tolkein. But we’re talking statistics here, not literary merit.*

That got me thinking about reading habits and expectations. As well as the basic question of why people read in the first place.**

(NB: Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy might have had more readers had it made the the Literary Review’s Bad Sex 2012 awards. Sex always sells regardless of how mediocre the writing.)

Popular fiction is divided into many genres, and each genre has its own audience. Often these audiences overlap, but not always. What one person expects from, say, a science fiction (my favourite genre) title is not what another expects from a romantic tale. And certainly what one expects from fiction is nothing like what one expects from, say, biography, or science.

So why would you start a book, then not finish it. It often comes down to nothing more than personal taste: you don’t like the characters, the writing style, the location, the plot, and so on. Most recently, I stopped mid-way through a Malcolm Gladwell book, thinking it “twaddle” but that was a judgment on his conclusions and method, rather than on his writing. I gave up on a massive biography of Joseph Smith earlier this year after a couple of hundred pages because I found it overwhelming: more detail than I felt I needed and I was wading through the minutiae like they were molasses.

Why do you give up on a book you’ve started?

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07/12/13

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde


Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think? Continue reading

06/22/13

Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally


Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

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