07/19/13

What in Hell…?


DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

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07/16/13

The sum of all knowledge


Know it AllIn his 2004 book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs tells of his quest to become “the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.

Right away, you can see the fly in this intellectual ointment: knowledge doesn’t equal intelligence.

Jared Diamond, in his introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, credits the barely literate, ill-educated tribespeople of New Guinea as being the smartest people he ever met. Not because of their ability to discourse, as Jacobs says, on the intricacies of the Phoenician legal system, but rather because their daily life is such a struggle.

That struggle, combined with a hostile environment that lacks many of the natural resources like metals that propelled western civilizations’ technologies ahead, Diamond writes, forces them to think a lot about how to survive. They have to be creative in ways we never consider, or have long since taken for granted. They have to find solutions using limited tools and resources. That makes them very smart.

You want dinner? It’s a few steps away, a short journey between freezer and microwave. They want dinner, it has to be found in a challenging and dangerous world, caught, killed, cleaned, a fire made from raw materials, then cooked. They survive every day having to solve life-affecting problems. Our biggest challenge many days is whether to watch this channel or another one.

Modern civilization often relieves us of the necessity to think critically. Convenience is wonderful, but it also can make us stupid. Just look at the number of cute kitten photos on Facebook paired with sappy “inspirational” quotes attributed to the wrong person. Or the number of homeopathic sites. Convenience often makes us susceptible to marketing, advertising and propaganda because we accept rather than analyse.

And reading alone isn’t enough to alleviate it. People read all sorts of stuff online – volumes of the written word – but still believe in all sorts of superstitious, stupid claptrap like chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies. People read and give credence to wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy and Anne Coulter. There is no shortage of written material online about Bosnian pyramids, UFO abductions, religious intolerance, astrology, “psychics,” racism and political extremism.

So reading itself is not a path to intelligence. You need critical thinking and skepticism, too. Lots of skepticism.*

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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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05/23/13

Midway in our Life’s Journey…


Too many books!So begins The Inferno, the first of the three books that comprise Dante’s magnificent and complex work, The Divine Comedy.* It’s a rich, complex and challenging read. I have to admit I have not read it all – all three books that is – but I have made a mighty effort to complete Inferno in several editions.

My problem is not comprehension, but rather distraction. Were this a desert isle, it would make it much easier to finish. I read like a jackdaw.

But back to Dante. The first lines (Canto I, trans. by John Ciardi, Norton edn.), continue:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

I was reading that opening again, this week, as I collected books from my shelves to donate to the local library. Powerful words. Don’t we all feel that doubt at some time in our lives, that nagging question whether we had made all the right choices, followed the right path? Don’t we all wonder what life would have been like if we made the other choice, took the other road, chose the other person?

And here I am with a book in my hand wondering what life would be like had I never opened it, never read it, never followed it down the path it led me to. What less would I have understood, what less would I have felt, what less would I have explored without it?

I can’t imagine a life without Dante. Without Shakespeare, Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Shunryu Suzuki, Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dickens, Carl Sagan, Casanova, Dante, Machiavelli, Wallace Stevens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Bryson… so many authors whose works have helped build my world view. Wouldn’t life be poorer without them?

Can I bear to part from them? Continue reading

05/22/13

Musing on Melville’s Poetry


Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

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04/27/13

Shakespeare’s Lost Plays


Double FalsehoodShakespeare’s canon, as it is known today, is incomplete. The Bard is known to have written several plays that were not, for various reasons, included in the First Folio printed shortly after his death.

Other plays, several included in the third folio, were attributed to Shakespeare after that publication, but most are known not to have been written by him, and have since been rejected (called the Shakespeare Apocrypha).

Some, like Pericles, have be given grudging acceptance in the modern canon. Many modern scholars accept Pericles as a collaboration between Shakespeare and a lesser talent (George Wilkins is suggested), but some are willing to accept it as entirely by Shakespeare’s hand.

Other texts have crept into the canon as scholars assess and reassess contemporary works. Two Noble Kinsmen is now accorded a place in most collections as a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Edward III, published anonymously in 1596, has won considerable support as an early Shakespearean history, and appears in many modern collections.

Edmund IronsideAnd still others remain contentious. Eric Sams argued well (at least I thought so) for Edmund Ironside as an early Shakespearean history, and his book about the play created a small tempest in academia. Sams’ claim was rejected by some scholars simply because he was not a Shakespeare academic, but rather a talented musicologist.

You can read an analysis of the play and Sams’ claims for authorship here, (a good overview, although the writer incorrectly assumes Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere).

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