Everything Flows

Everything FlowsTonight’s book-with-wine discussion is about Vasily Grossman‘s novel, Everything Flows (New York Review Book, USA, 2009). It was his final work, and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1964.

It’s not a difficult read, only 250 pages, but it isn’t easy. Readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, particularly the Stalin era, will not understand much of it. And it’s hardly a cheerful work. Not that everything Russian is a slit-your-wrist work, but it’s certainly Dostoevsky-like in its darkness.

Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent during WWII and travelled with the Red Army through Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk then into Eastern Europe, and finally Germany, where he covered the Battle for Berlin. He was the top war correspondent of the USSR and his articles were collected and translated in a 2006 book, A Writer at War. His pieces offer a very personal look at a side of the war we usually know more from military and official sources.

His mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, as they blitzed across the Ukraine. As a Jew, Grossman suffered Soviet racism and prejudices, increasing in the late 1940s as Stalin grew more paranoid and anti-Semitic. His artistic views were also molded by his war experiences and his ability to see the people in the carnage. He was among the first to see Treblinka and was one of the earliest to chronicle the Holocaust.

He was a good reporter and became a good novelist. He wrote honestly about what few of his contemporaries have dared write: life in Soviet Russia; the life of individuals slogging through an unrelenting system they didn’t fully understand, about their core of human will to survive. Honest, moving stuff. And for that he would become persona non grata, one among many artists whose work displeased the State.

After the war, he wrote two novels, both about the war: For a Just Cause (1952) and Life and Fate. The former was a fairly standard work for its day and was published. The latter has been compared to a modern War and Peace – it is huge, sweeping and complex. But because it was also critical of the Soviet government, and exposed some of the army’s atrocities as it advanced into enemy territory, it was too explosive for the then-Soviet censors (and the party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov). The government had it banned. Life and Fate would not be published until 1980, after his death.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

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Why Fonts Matter

Why Fonts Matter
The first problem I have when receiving a new book on typography is that I spend far too much time looking up the typefaces described or sampled therein, and searching for them online, instead of reading. Then I start looking at (and critiquing) the typefaces chosen for the book itself. It’s a trees-not-the-forest kind of wonderment that comes over me.

As I am wont to do, I sit back on my deck in the evening sun, glass of wine in hand, and a large pile of previously-purchased typography books beside me, so I can make the introductions. Probably not necessary, since I suspect they already know one another. But it’s comforting to have them all together.

That’s just my own obsession with type and typography. There are, those peccadilloes aside, many great delights to be had in receiving a new book about typography. To open a page filled with characters, colours, shapes… it’s almost a childish joy. I trust some of you know that emotion, already. Sometimes I think talking about type is a bit like talking about Zen. From the outside, it seems suspiciously like mumbo jumbo that only the insiders can understand. But stick with me, grasshopper.*

Sarah Hyndman’s book, and the latest in my collection, Why Fonts Matter, doesn’t frame itself by asking if they matter. Of course they do. What she wants to tell is is how they matter, how they affect us. How they make us feel. How they direct us to buying, eating, music and other daily choices. And, of course, how they communicate their verbal and non-verbal messages. Very Mcluhanistic, the message and the medium and all that. And that’s in great part what Hyndman wants to tell us.

And like the Zen master’s stick thwacking sharply over the novice’s shoulders to spur awareness (and rouse us from sleep), Hyndman startles and awakens us. In a pleasant way, of course. A gentle stick. It’s meant as an interactive journey, not a lecture. And she has a light touch, and a mildly sardonic humour, too.

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The Postmortal

Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

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Moses Revealed

Moses with hornsHe was a murderer, a sorcerer, a slave owner. He betrayed his adopted family and led a rebellion against them. He was a charismatic firebrand, an oracle, and a misfit. He fluctuated between fits of rage and periods of meekness. He led his forces to commit what today we’d call war crimes and acts of genocide. He gave out laws and yet he ruled autocratically.

He was disfigured and wore a mask to cover his face for the latter part of his life. He brought down biological warfare on his enemies, and battled among them in a duel of magic. He had dissenters among his own people buried alive or hacked down by his armed supporters. He disappeared from history for 40 years, his whereabouts unknown, only to reappear in time to die within sight of his life’s goal.

We never even learn his father and mother’s names, nor those of his older brother and sister, until long after we’ve been told about his birth and abandonment. Yet we were earlier led to believe he was the firstborn. It’s a life filled with opposites and contradictions.

Charlton HestonPretty interesting character, Moses. Not at all like the heroic, troubled character played by Charlton Heston in the 1956 movie, itself a dramatic whitewash of the actual tale.

Full of contradictions, Moses’s story is replete with drama and passion, tragedy and pathos, murder, divine intervention and magic. And this troubled, driven man changed the world.

Or so the story goes.

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Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon and Collingwood

Nixon calls for new HUAC probe of HissRemember the case of Alger Hiss? I didn’t think so. It was before your time. Mine too. But let me jog your memory, just in case you’re older than I am. Or perhaps just well read in recent history.

Hiss was a US government employee, a diplomat at the centre of a House Un-American Advisory Committee (HUAC) investigation in 1950. He was accused of being a Soviet spy and eventually sent to jail (coincidentally on the same day George Orwell died…). Ring a bell? How about the Pumpkin Papers?

Remember HUAC? You know, the committee investigating Communism in America, the one that brought Senator Joe McCarthy to prominence and eventually proved his undoing. How about the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s? The Cold War? Anything coming back to you, yet? No? You’re probably too young.

Well, so am I. For the Hiss case, that is. Not for the Red Scare, the Cold War, Nixon and the decades of US-vs-USSR ideological squabbles that almost led us to WWIII. That all happened in my time and I remember the news, the stories, the broadcasts,the air raid drills. But the HUAC hearings about Hiss were just before me.

Still, I know something about them, about Hiss, Nixon and the whole HUAC thing from my ongoing reading and studies. The story came up last night as I read another chapter in Anthony Summers’ biography of Richard Nixon, The Arrogance of Power. A good book, by the way, if you are interested in the ‘Machiavellian’ politics of Nixon.

Hiss and HUAC collectively launched the career of the then-neophyte politician, Richard Nixon, newly elected to Congress. It was a milestone for him. Hiss was highly respected and well-placed, with no evidence to convict him. HUAC’s investigation had stalled and the committee was about to throw in the towel when Nixon was appointed to it. Nixon proved a bulldog who, using inside information from other sources, possibly even faked evidence, turned the case around and got Hiss convicted. And he used compliant media to make his case and get coverage.

From an unknown newcomer to the political battlefield, Richard Nixon would leverage his profile as an unrelenting, staunch anti-Communist into the Senate, the vice presidency and eventually, after many false starts, to the presidency. Any lights going on now?

Probably not. Hiss is long forgotten by the public. He died in 1996, a few days after his 92nd birthday, protesting his innocence to the end. Nixon himself died earlier, in 1994, still claiming Hiss was guilty until the end. The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991 and despite a lot of its secret archives being opened for Western researchers, the evidence for or against Hiss remains controversial, contradictory and inconclusive. Even today it’s hard to say for certain if he was a spy or someone’s patsy.

What is conclusive is that Nixon’s obsessive pursuit of Hiss and his manipulations in the background gave him headlines and for a short while star status. It was also the time when Nixon’s political persona was being cast in concrete and his ambitious machinations to climb the political ladder really leapt into high gear.

For a glimpse into the politics of post-war America, the rivalry between superpowers, and a picture into both Nixon’s and the Republican mindset, you should read the Hiss story. It’s fascinating stuff.

But of course that’s not why I brought you here, dear reader, down this meandering path of what must seem like lessons in ancient history spiced by the ramblings of an old curmudgeon. What I wanted to give you was a recap of what Summers writes in his conclusion to the chapter. Why? Not because of Hiss, Nixon or any Cold War story, but because I think you will recognize the local relevance. Read on…

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Demagogues and dictators

Lenin, Stalin & HitlerI’m not sure why they fascinate me, but I’ve been reading about demagogues and dictators for many decades now and still can’t seem to get enough of them. Of course, it’s in part because I like to read about politics in all its forms and fashions, but there’s something more than just celebrity watching with these. There’s the psychology of propaganda and mass movements, the inoculation of widespread ideologies, the use of technology and mass culture.

The period between the two World Wars in particular intrigues me because it was an era of great social change. Upheaval, really. The rise of the automobile, the telephone, radio, film… technology changed the world in ways no one could have predicted before WWI. And it was the first time mass propaganda was used to propel politics. Effectively, too. The old pre-war social orders and empires crumbled and new ones emerged. Democracy blossomed, too, albeit not without conflict.

But while many of the issues may have changed since then, the methods and the styles of today’s demagogues, how they appeal to the masses and spread their message, are much the same as they ever were. Watching Donald Trump in action as he campaigns, I can see echoes of his predecessors back into the 1920s and ’30s.

There’s a certain fusty notion of political correctness not to play the Hitler card or the Stalin card in these comparisons, but they are there and people would be foolish not to see the parallels in methods and popular appeal. After all, those who forget the lessons of history…

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Dear Amazon…

Amazon shipping
Dear Amazon:

Hello, it’s me, Ian. Yes, that’s right, the crazy guy who orders all those books. Yeah, the history books, the science books, the philosophy books, the ones on leadership and politics… you know, the guy who spends at least $100 a month buying books from you.

Plus don’t forget the pasta maker, the PC games, the laptop battery, the kitchenware, the ukulele tuners, the gaming mice, drawing tablet, Kindle and other stuff, I’ve bought from you… 26 orders from you in the last six months alone. Yeah, that Ian.

Well, I’m at it again. I just can’t get enough. After all, can you ever have too many books? Of course not! But I’m concerned.

Six days ago I placed an order for three more books. All of them were all marked “in stock” at the time. But every time I check my order, it tells me you’re “preparing to ship” them. And trust me, I’ve checked several times.

I don’t know where you and your staff shop, but six days to “prepare” something that’s supposedly already in stock seems like a very long time to wait. Would you eat in a restaurant where the waiter took your order and told you to come back next week?

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The gems of Salomé

SaloméI was perhaps 11 or 12 when I first encountered Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Some of it, at least.

At the time, I knew nothing of Wilde, his writing, or even much about theatre in general. After all, I was in grade seven or eight. It would be a few years before I encountered (and developed a passion for) Shakespeare and other playwrights. But Wilde I actually discovered first.

Faced with the dramatic challenges of their own – my mother was either still in hospital or had only recently been released and was struggling with the paralyzing results of her stroke – my parents allowed me to make the trip downtown to spend a day at the museum on my own. I would do that many, many times in those years. A solitary visit, a day spent in wonder and imagination.

Allowed may be a kind word. They were struggling with serious life issues, and I was, admittedly, a bit of a handful with a wayward sense of independence.

I figured out how to get to the museum, alone and by public transport, from our home in distant, suburban Scarborough to the downtown, and went off on my own, paying my way with money earned through my paper route. My parents accepted my excursions after the fact as a fait accompli, although not without stern warnings. It was not the destination, perhaps, that concerned them, but the hour-long trip by myself, negotiating buses, transfers and finally the subway.

Still, I returned every night intact, unmolested, and richer for the experience. A day in the museum was for me like a day in Oz or some other magical kingdom. The dinosaurs, the mummies, the urns, the totem poles, the stuffed animals frozen behind glass.

The words from Wilde were written in raised letters on a wall in the entrance to the mineralogy hall of the Royal Ontario Museum. It was always the second place I always visited after the invertebrate paleontology hall. I believe they are still there, today.

I copied them down into the notebook I always carried then, long since lost, but the words remained scribbled in my heart. They moved me in unexpected ways for a pre-teen, and still move me today. And I still carry notebooks to record such things, although they tend to be used for more prosaic purposes, since moments of wonder seem fewer and farther between these days.

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The Leadership Crisis

The Leadership CrisisIn his latest book, The Leadership Crisis, Gord Hume defines seven characteristics – the Seven Cs – of great political leadership*. See how many you can recognize as attributes within our own council:

  1. Competencies, including people, organizational, business and strategic.
  2. Character, and its traits, values and virtues; integrity.
  3. Commitment, including aspiration, engagement, perseverance and sacrifice.
  4. Charisma, that unquantifiable attribute that political leaders either have or don’t.
  5. Communication, through effective messaging that inspires, informs and influences.
  6. Context, an understanding of what’s going on around them.
  7. Culture, and how to develop, create, change and advance that culture

I think you can see for yourself that these traits are notable by their absence in most of our council. Just take any one of the seven – say, communications. How can a council that conducts so much of its business behind closed doors communicate well, if at all? And how does it communicate? Only through poorly-designed, improperly formatted ads in a newspaper no one reads and via a dull “newsletter” riddled with mistakes but no news.

Culture? There’s more culture in a cup of yogurt than in all of council. Competencies? How can a group that refuses to learn from its peers and hand over control of policy making to staff be competent?

One can, of course, learn and grow on the job, assuming one breaks out of the ideological shell that cocoons them. Which, in 18 months in office, still hasn’t happened. But, like winning the lottery or being struck by a meteorite, there’s still a chance for it to happen. A very slim chance, but we must be optimistic, despite the odds.

There are many books on leadership on the shelves these days. What makes Hume’s book different is the context of leadership within Canadian municipal politics.** You can read an excerpt of the book here. As Hume writes on his website:

Ego, ambition, fear, doubt, passion. Politicians may have a fervent belief in the rightness of their position or a visceral dislike for another person, party or platform, but these should always be tempered by the need to inspire collective action to move any agenda forward.

Hume’s books are among the most thought-provoking, engaging books I’ve ever read on municipal/local politics. It’s sad to note that perhaps only one or two (at most) on our own council will read this book. It is another important publication on municipal governance they will actively ignore. This council already stopped subscribing to the Municipal World magazine because they already know everything – despite most of them being new to the position – and doesn’t want their preconceived views polluted by advice from peers or experts. So exhorting them to read it will fall on mostly deaf ears (I have hope for two of the nine…).

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The Purple Thread

EpictetusRoman men wore togas for formal occasions. The basic toga – toga alba or toga pura – was a simple garment of plain white wool. It was undyed and unadorned. White was the colour required by Roman sumptuary law for citizens’ togas. This basic toga was also the garment draped on a boy when he went through his ceremony to manhood – called the toga virilis during that ceremony.

A dark brown or grey toga pulla or toga sordida was reserved for periods of mourning. A fancier, bleached toga was worn by candidates for political office – the toga candida. Candida means pure white and is the etymological source of our word, candidate. The pure white was symbolic of the candidate’s purity and honesty. I can hear you chuckle at that notion, especially after the last local municipal election.

In order to stand out in this sea of dull white, officials such as magistrates, aediles, consuls, senators and priests could wear the toga praetexta: a white toga with a purple border, usually 2-3 inches wide (5-7.5cm); the width reflected the wearer’s position. That purple band marked the wearers as important; made them visible in the teeming crowd of Roman citizens.

Over the years of the empire, the rules and types of togas changed, and what was once the defining garment of the Roman citizen – by law only Roman citizens were allowed to wear them – became a showpiece.

Likewise the Roman tunic – the garment for day-to-day wear – was usually undyed white, but for officials, it carried a stripe of purple to indicate their rank. The wider the stripe, the more important the wearer. Senators had the wide laticlavus, roughly two inches (5cm) wide; equestrians (equites) had two narrow red-purple angusticlavia on their shoulders.

Tunics might also be dyed, but dyes were expensive, so the average Roman didn’t use them. And only white tunics had the stripes, otherwise they might not be noticed.

It is that little purple band that stands out, that defines the wearer; not the rest of the garment.

Purple was the colour of position and royalty in the ancient world. The purple Tyrian dye came from murex snails found in the eastern Mediterranean and was very costly. Ten thousand snails were required to dye just one toga! Pure purple – the toga purpura – was generally reserved for the gods, but the emperor could wear the toga trabea: purple with a bit of white. Emperors were, after all, divine. The bit of white, I suppose, showed his human part. A little humility among all that divinity.

There was also the toga picta – an embroidered, purple toga (often with elaborate gold trim and embroidery) worn by emperors and by victorious generals in their triumph. There were other types, too – the toga trabea, toga palmata, and other, but let’s not digress.

The purpose of this post is not to discourse on the nature of Roman sartorial splendor. I merely set the stage for a comment in the next part: on the words of Epictetus, whom I have been reading of late.
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The Myth of Persecution

Myth of PersecutionI just finished reading The Myth of Persecution by theology professor Candida Moss (Harper One, New York, 2013). I picked it up because of my general interest in theology, but also my more specific interest in early church history. I didn’t realize when I started to read it that this book was at the centre of a huge kerfuffle in the Christian community over its message and its accuracy.

In short, Ms. Moss argues that while the early Christians in the first four centuries were often the victims of violence, and even some persecution, they were not the targets of systematic persecution by the Romans for the duration. In fact, the periods of legislated persecution were short and intermittent. She tries to distinguish between persecution and prosecution, and identifies situations where Christians were among the groups, but not singled out, targeted for oppression by various Roman emperors and their edicts.

Further, she argues that the majority of stories of martyrs from this time are fictional, not historic records, created to serve a political or social purpose. She deconstructs some of them, looking at historical records, literary records and internal logic.

And, she concludes, the modern cult of persecution – such as the faux ‘War on Christianity’ promoted by several right wing commentators recently – is based on both a flawed view of history and a dangerous perspective on world events that prevents dialogue and compromise between people. That perspective, Moss writes, is based on the defensive and dangerous notion of persecution and martyrdom. In a film review posted on The Daily Beast, Moss called modern Christian belief in its own persecution a “paranoid fantasy.”

With which I pretty much agree. While not by any means a scholar, what I have read over the years about the creation of the early church, the battles between sects and cults to frame orthodoxy, the arbitrary way the canon was cobbled together, the exclusion of the Gnostics, and the whole business of pseudepigrapha and fake documents supports her contention that the early stories of martyrs were part of this process.

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On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death

King Lear“Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Play?” asks a recent article on the Smithsonian website. It adds,

“Shakespeare, despite the efforts of notable dissenting critics and writers to forcibly eject him, has occupied the position of world’s greatest playwright since his star was re-affixed to the firmament in the late 18th century. No other playwright is as universally revered. No other playwright has had countless theses and courses and books and articles speculative novels and so many buckets and buckets of ink devoted to him. And while to works of other playwrights of the era are still performed today – Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson spring to mind – Shakespeare is far and away the most recognized.”

Yes, of course there can be. Bad isn’t an objective analysis: it’s a subjective association. What seems good to me might appear bad to you, and vice versa.

April 23, 1616. The day both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra died. Two literary giants.*

Shakespeare was a working writer who matured into his art over the years. Some of his plots are thin, some of his dialogue clumsy and some of his poems cloying. He wasn’t perfect. When we talk of Shakespeare as the greatest author, we are commenting on his entire output, and its effect on literature, art and culture over four centuries, not specific lines or even plays.

Good or bad is simply a small judgment we pass on fragments, not the whole. As Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” If by bad it means unpopular – what has popularity ever had to do with quality? Consider, for example, Justin Bieber…

The example of a ‘bad’ play that opens this article is King Lear – today seen as a great, dramatic tragedy. Equally, it’s a play of despair, bad endings, greed unpunished, madness, delusion, arrogance, cruelty and suffering. Great stuff, you will agree.

It wasn’t always viewed as such. It was written between 1603 and 06, when it was first performed. It is one of the few plays we have in multiple original publications: two quartos and the First Folio. As Wikipedia points out, having multiple sources is problematic because the differences between them are “significant.” Any version you read or watch is an edited collation of these three.

Coincidentally, I started rereading Lear last week, the first time I have opened that play in more than 25 years. It’s deliciously dark and troubling. Suitable for our times, I suppose.

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The Bard’s Best? Nope…

Shakespeare bracket
To help celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23) and 452nd of his birth (also April 23), the website Mashable has put together a “battle” for the “Best Shakespeare Play Ever.” It’s done up as a sort of sports playoff grid (a tournament bracket), broken into four categories.

Four? That’s right. Even though the First Folio was only divided into three categories, Mashable added their own:

The plays are organized into four quadrants based on the four genres of plays Shakespeare commonly wrote: comedies, histories, tragedies and weird magic stuff. (Okay, we may have made up that last category in order to get to four, but you know the type: the plays with ghosts, witches, gods, etc.)

So right off, you know this is more game than academia. And, you protest, there are 36 plays in the First Folio, plus a couple of others added since. This game only has 32. What about the rest?

Where are the The Two Gentlemen of Verona? It’s consider the Bard’s very first play.  Or The Merry Wives of Windsor – arguably one of the Bard’s most popular plays, possibly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth herself. It has Falstaff in it! How can any play with Falstaff be left out?

And the chart mentions Henry IV, but doesn’t specify which part (1 or 2 – part 2 is more Falstaff than part 1). Both are self-contained. Same with Henry VI: it has three parts, each a separate play, but which one is not specified. Part 1 is not well considered, and may be Shakespeare’s weakest effort.

The chart mentions Pericles – which was not included in the First Folio (FF). But it ignores The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was also not in the FF, but has since been accepted as a Shakespeare work (with Fletcher).

Then there’s the pairing of plays: odd at best, it strikes me as cobbled together by someone who hasn’t actually read the plays he or she has coupled, someone who doesn’t appreciate the differences and distinctions between the styles, categories and stories.

For example, Romeo and Juliet play off against Timon of Athens. Both were grouped in the FF as tragedies, but aside from that, any similarity ends. R&J was written around 1595, ToA was written a decade later, a collaboration with Middleton. R&J is a story about a young couple and the feud between their Italian families. ToA is about a rich,Greek misanthrope who discovers the infidelity of his friends, with no love interest in the play. They are completely mismatched.

Henry V is paired with King John. H5 is one of the Bard’s great plays, rich with stirring speeches, action, tension and drama. KJ is written entirely in verse (the only other such play is Richard II) and is mostly about court intrigues. H5 has been performed many times and Kenneth Branagh made a stirring movie of it in 1989 and it was included in the 2012 Hollow Crown series (great news! Hollow Crown 2 is coming soon…).
Continue reading “The Bard’s Best? Nope…”

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