Category Archives: Literary pretensions

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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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

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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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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The Pulp Renaissance


Burroughs novelIn the late 1950s, I came across a copy (1912; an original edition, I believe) of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first published novel, Tarzan, The Ape Man, on my parent’s bookshelf in the basement. A forgotten book, one my father had likely brought with him from England when he immigrated here in 1947, something from his own boyhood. It sat beside old volumes of the Boy’s Own Annual and other English books. Of course I had to open it and read it.

From the very start, I was fascinated by it, by the adventure, by the sheer fantasy of it all. It was, as I recall more than 50 years later, the first ‘adult’ novel I ever read.* It was also the only such book on the shelf – among the various textbooks, Agatha Christie mysteries, and a few odds end ends. Only Tarzan, among them, held my attention.

In the early 1960s, I discovered science fiction. I used to wait in the local library for my father to pick me up after work (my mother was in hospital for a couple of years), and the library was a safe, welcoming place, albeit the Bendale branch was small. I was precocious and bored; and the children’s section was too small to contain my restless intelligence. I soon graduated from the children’s section to adult books in my impatience. I read voraciously.

Top of the list of fiction I read then were novels by writers like Andre Norton, Ben Bova, Chad Oliver, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, John Wyndham, James Blish, John W. Campbell, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Lester del Rey, Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss and many others. By the time I reached my teens I had read hundreds of scifi and fantasy novels. A lot of ‘space opera’ among them.**

About the same time, in the early half of the 1960s, paperback publishers like Bantam and Ace started reprinting the pulp stories of the pre-war years. While some kids collected baseball and hockey cards, I collected paperback book series.

Soon all of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs were available in print, and I bought every one, building a library of his works (which I still have, mostly complete, although I may be missing a few of his western titles). I avidly read his Barsoom and Pellucidar series, finding them far more entertaining than the many Tarzan novels (which I collected and read, anyway). Given that the first Barsoom novel was written in 1912, it certainly has had staying power.

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The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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Profundity


In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote one of the most profound poems in the English language: The Red Wheelbarrow. It reads like a Japanese Zen haiku:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Wikipedia tells us that the poem’s title is not its original, but rather one applied by its readers. The poem was first published in anthology titled Spring and All. The poem itself was simply titled “XXII,” indicating its place in the collection.

Referring to the poem as “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text “a specifically different frame” than that which Williams originally intended. The poem is removed from its place in the anthology and thus takes on a different meaning.

This I think is overly critical. The name isn’t the poem. It’s simply a mnemonic to help us remember.

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