Monday, January 31, 2005

Bits and Pieces

A list of satire. Looks like I need to read some Evelyn Waugh sometime. Don Quixote not the first novel? I feel cheated! And it might not even be a novel at all? Could have fooled me. (link via Bookninja) Who needs horror novels when there are things like this to read. I am still screaming and will have nightmares for weeks. (link via Bookslut) The Maltese Falcon turns 75.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


An interesting essay in the Times about some new software that indexes your files and searches by association. The author of the article, Steven Johnson, already uses it and discusses the potential it has for changing the way we write. If you've ever taken a writing class and did different idea generation exercises, it seems to work like clustering except it's the computer doing the work of association, not you:

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I'd then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head -- I'd forgotten about the chimpanzee connection -- and I'd select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.
Kind of cool, but it makes me nervous too. Except for a calculator, I don't like my machines to do my thinking for me. I can see how it can come in handy though for finding those notes from that book you read a decade ago, or if you keep a journal on your computer it will be great to help you find the entry you made three years ago where you copied down a great quote about an eclipse. The big downfall of this new software is, of course, the information has to be on your computer to find it. I have all my journals in paper notebooks, I have several different idea notebooks, I have a couple different commonplace notebooks and if I take notes while reading, it usually ends up in the margins of the book or, you guessed it, in a notebook. It occurs to me that I could simply be a sort of dinosaur on its way to extinction. I love my computer but I don't need it. I made it through college as an English major with a single line display word processing typewriter. I couldn't afford a computer. Not until I was in grad school did I get a computer. I've had a computer ever since but I've never felt compelled to digitize my entire life--I like my notebooks. It wasn't even until the summer of last year that it occurred to me that keeping little scraps of paper with book titles I am interested in reading in a shoebox was silly. Now I have a tidy fiction list and nonfiction list on my computer and no more shoebox. We rely on computers so much already, it worries me to think that writers might start using their computers to help them think. It's only a short step from there it seems to me until they help us write too. I think there is a novel here--writer's computer takes over--by Stephen King and his G5 Mac.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Let Us Pray

If you've been following along with the Montaigne essays you can probably imagine what his views are regarding prayer. I was not surprised by "On Prayer" at all. Montaigne's view of prayer is quite strict, so strict that the Church censor made him soften up the essay a bit before allowing it to be published. Montaigne begins the essay nicely enough by saying that since "we have been granted by special grace and favor a set form of prayer prescribed and dictated to us, word by word, by God's own mouth, it has always seemed to me that we should use it more commonly." If it was up to Montaigne Christians would use no other prayer than the Lord's Prayer. The Church, of course, "may lengthen or vary prayers according to her need to instruct us," but everyone else should find the Lord's Prayer sufficient for every possible occasion. There is a good reason that Montaigne thinks the Lord's Prayer should be the only prayer used, and here is where he starts to get into trouble. You see, we have fallen into the "error" of "calling upon him [God] in every kind of need and in any place whatsoever where our weakness needs support, without once considering whether the occasion is just or unjust. No matter how we are or what we are doing--however sinful it may be--we invoke God's name and power." Sure, God is our protector, all powerful and good and has always our best interests in mind. but God is also just, and it is according to justice that God grants us our petitions. Therefore, "if we implore him to use his power in a wicked cause it is of no avail." Now here is where Montaigne got into trouble with the Church censor. Montaigne believes, "Our soul must be pure, at least for that instant when we make our prayer, free from the weight of vicious passions; otherwise we offer him rods for our own chastisement. Instead of amending our faults we redouble them by offering God (from whom we ought to be begging forgiveness) emotions full of irreverence and hatred." Now, according to the editor's note, this statement smacks of puritanism of which the Roman Catholic Church was suspicious. Perhaps someone who is Catholic can shed some light on what exactly is puritan about Montaigne's belief. It seems to me that if you are going to pray, that's the right way to do it. Prayer should not come from a place of malice, but from a place of love. That brings us back to the Lord's Prayer. Montaigne says that when we pray, "'Forgive us,' we say, 'as we forgive them that trespass against us.' What do these words mean if not that we are offering God our souls free from vengeance and resentment?" Our prayers are often nothing but an outward show and we utter words that we don't mean or understand. Montaigne suggests that perhaps everyone should have to pray aloud, that way we wouldn't dare "call on God and his help to connive at wrongdoings and to invite him to be unjust." Montaigne also suggests that we pray less often because it isn't easy "for us to bring our souls so frequently into that controlled, reformed and supplicatory state" that is required for a true and pure prayer. Montaigne takes a little sidestep to rant for a page about the Bible being translated into "the vulgar tongues." He sees it as being more dangerous than useful because when everyone can read the Bible then everyone can interpret it for themselves instead of having the Church explain what it really says and means. Obviously, this takes a stab at the Protestants and the Reformation. But this is just a short detour before he gets back to prayer. We often use prayer "as a sort of jingle" where the words don't mean anything to us but we say them anyway as a sort of magic shield. Or we beg God for things that are "unseemly or unjust." But we should be careful because sometimes God punishes "unrighteous prayers" by granting them in a way that makes us wretched. We should not beg for or demand things of God in our prayers, "we should not ask that all things should comply with our will but that they should comply with wisdom." After all, aren't the words "thy will be done" also in the Lord's Prayer? What ego people have to think they know the will or wisdom of God--any god. When it comes to prayer, I think Montaigne was on to something. Next week's Montaigne essay: I have finished reading through all of the major essays of Book One so will be going back and picking up some of the very short essays. For next week these will be: "We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means," "How the Soul Discharges its Emotions Against False Objects When Lacking Real Ones," "Whether the Governor of the Besieged Fortress Should Go Out and Parley," and "The Hour of Parleying is Dangerous."

Friday, January 28, 2005


A wonderful essay about what happens when you finally find the book you've been searching for and dreaming of for years. It might not be what you expect.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Book Browsing

Spent the evening browsing at the bookstore, soy peppermint mocha in hand. I saw lots of things to be tempted by but controlled myself and picked out three Barnes and Noble classics that were on sale buy two get one free. So I am adding The Possessed, Daniel Deronda, and Moll Flanders to the shelves. Also picked up a Lonely Planet guide to Wales. My Bookman and I had a wild idea a few weeks ago that we'd plan a trip for spring 2006 to Scotland and Hay-on-Wye in Wales. We thought Wales was bigger than it is and Scotland closer to it. After we got the Lonely Planet guide for Scotland we discovered that in 10 days we'd never be able to enjoy Scotland and Hay. So now we are having a conundrum. Do we do the Scotland thing and meander through Edinburgh, Stirling and then Inverness (and of course a jaunt to Loch Ness)? Or do we go to Wales with, perhaps, a day's stop in Salisbury on the way for a look at the cathedral and Stonehenge before spending several days browsing the bookstores of Hay and then to the coast for walking, relaxation and Puffin watching before trundling back to London (a city we both love) for a day or two stay prior to departure back home? It's a dilemma we aren't sure how to solve. (Of course, if anyone reading this lives in the UK and would like to adopt us into your family, we'd be very happy to live permanently in your fine country. We don't take up a lot of space and are very handy--good gardeners and great at snow shoveling. My bookman is a fab cook and makes a mean cup of coffee and I can knit you warm woolly socks. If you are the non-bookish sort we'd be glad to tell you what to read, and if you are bookish we can have jolly evenings talking about what everyone is reading. We'll also wash your windows and take out your trash. We just need a bed and a little pocket money now and then. We're a bargain! *grin*)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Finally Finished

It is with much relief that I finished Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I was expecting a novel and got short stories. I am not much of a short story reader. I have to prepare myself for short stories, they take a different mindset for me than a novel or even a novella. The Castle and I did not get along very well. The book is made up of two smaller books, The Castle of Crossed Desitinies and The Tavern of Crossed Destinies. In each the premise is the same. A group of people in a castle or tavern find their voices are gone. Conveniently there is a deck of Tarot cards on the table and they use the deck to tell their stories. The cards are not read like in a Tarot reading, but are taken at face value. I had a difficult time following the stories, trying to match up the picture of the card in the book's margins with the cards in the story and then trying to follow the way they were laid out on the table. I didn't know what the point of all of it was or how the stories were related. I kept wondering if the castle was a metaphor for something, or what the reason was that they were unable to talk. At the end of the Castle section there is a picture of all the cards laid out and Calvino writes,

In fact, the task of deciphering the stories one by one has made me neglect until now the most salient peculiarity of our way of narrating, which is that each story runs into another story, and as one guest is advancing his strip, another, from the other end, advances in the opposite direction, because the stories told from left to right or from bottom to top can also be read from right to left and from top to bottom, and vice versa, bearing in mind that the same cards, presented in a different order, often change their meaning, and the same tarot is used at the same time by narrators who set forth from the four cardinal points.
.So basically all the stories are related because they share cards, though the cards might have a different meaning in each story. If I had known this up front, I might have had an easier time of it. Finally, at the end of the book is a Note and in the Note Calvino explains why he wrote the stories in the first place and what the stories are about. The central story of Castle is Orlando Furioso which may have made more sense if I had ever read it. In Tavernit is Shakespeare. I picked up on that and almost enjoyed it. I loved Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler and will try Calvino again. I can't help but feel though I somehow failed with this book, that Castle is better than I think it is. I had this same feeling with The Great Gatsby and read it three times over the course of ten years hoping to discover what was so great about it. After the third reading I decided that I was never going to like Gatsby no matter how many times I read it. I don't plan on reading Castle again though. I guess sometimes books are like people, no matter how hard you try to get along with them, occasionally you just can't.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Check Your TV Listings

Check your local PBS TV listings for Do You Speak American? Tonight they will be going to Cali man. From the prview it looks like they will be talking to some totally gnarly and righteous surfer dudes. I also hope that they, like, go to, like, the Valley, 'cause that would be, like, so totally awe-some. Omigawd! Can you, like, tell, I, like, grew up in SoCal? That's Southern California to most people. Now I live in Minnesota and I sound like a Californian who got stuck in the movie Fargo. My family, still in California, think it's really funny. Yup, you betcha.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Bits and Pieces

Bookstores doomed due to cyberglobalism. The book was supposed to be doomed because of the computer too, but that has yet to happen. No bookstores to browse in? I doubt it. Philip Pullman gets cranky about grammar. I must say I agree with him. When I was in grad school in California I tutored English as a Second Language kids on writing and then later taught a class of Freshmen Composition for four semesters. The theory at the time was work on the proccess of writing and don't worry about the grammar. It was the ideas that were important. We were to ask the students questions like "what are you trying to say here?" Or make comments like "this is a really great idea, can you expand on it?" We were supposed to be guides and sounding boards, not harpies with red markers. After the ideas had all been worked out and developed, then, and only then, were we to bring them around to grammar. It was hard work for teachers and tutors--lots of work one-on-one with students during office hours and lots of time spent going over draft after draft of an essay. But I think in the end the students learned more and they learned better. At least I hope they did. The Academy of American Poets has been posting a new essay every day by one of 31 "young Amercian poets." I've read a few of them and they are short but quite good. Shakespeare may have been poisoned by treatment he received for syphilis. During Will's time the treatment involved the use of mercury. (link via Good Reports)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Bardic Controversy

Apparently Stephen Greenblatt's book Will in the World has got many scholar's knickers in a bunch. The book, which I hadn't bothered investigating because I thought it was yet another dry academic examination of Shakspeare, is written more as a "contemporary biography" in the genre of "creative nonfiction." It has sold 150,000 copies and spent time on the bestseller list. But scholars are picking it apart for all its inaccuracies and waggling their fingers at Greenblatt because he should know better. This brings Rachel Donadio to ask Who Owns Shakspeare? Does he belong to scholars or readers? And I ask, why can't he belong to everyone? It seems to me that people are interested in Shakespeare but are afraid of him. So a book like Greeblatt's that is accessible and interesting for the general reader seems a good thing to me. People who read Will in the World might then be inspired to find out more, read more of the plays besides Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, and even venture a more scholarly book about Shakespeare. That would be a good thing for everyone. Wouldn't it? All I know is that I am suddenly interested in reading Will in the World and I am excited about the list of Shakespeare books Donadio mentions that are being published this year and next. Who knows, maybe in the next couple of years people will start quoting Shakespeare regularly in daily conversations at work, or say things like "that was such a Macbeth thing to do." It could happen.

When Books Collide

It is a delightful surprise when there is an accidental confluence of books. Don Quixote is filled with adventures of knight errantry. Then in The Castle of Crossed Destinies I come upon a story called "Two Tales of Seeking and Losing." One of those tales belongs to Parsifal. In this story is this little gem:

In the same way a knight-errant is one who submits his actions to an absolute and severe moral law, so that natural law can maintain abundance on earth with absolute freedom."
Don Quixote does indeed hold himself to a "severe moral law." At this point in the book, I am not sure if it has any more meaning to him other than that's just what knights errant do. The two books meeting, however briefly, gave me a little tickle of pleasure and served to remind me that not only people talk about books, but books talk about books and talk to other books as well. Ain't reading great?

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Middle Mind

Montaigne would go nuts if he were alive today. In his essay "On Vain and Cunning Devices" he declares, "It is a wonderful testimony of the weakness of Man's judgment that things which are neither good nor useful it values on account of their rarity, novelty and, even more, their difficulty." One of his examples is a man who throws grains of millet so precisely that he can toss them through the eye of a needle every time. Today this guy would, no doubt, end up on Ripley's Believe it or Not or some such TV program for his fifteen minutes of fame. Montaigne scoffs at people who, through "those kinds of cunning devices, frivolous and vain" seek some sort of reputation. Montaigne would certainly be appalled at the Guinness Book of World Records. He then goes on to tell about a game they have been playing at his house in which they try and see who can name the most things that "meet at extremes." For example, "Women of the nobility are called Dames; middle-ranking women are called Damoiselles; and we use Dames again for the lowest women of all." Through this game Montaigne has come to realize that it is the people who fall in the middle that will always be most likely to upset the status quo. Men who are born of simple mind go on their way asking no questions. Men who are born with great minds are settled because they see things more clearly. But men born in the middle who "turn with contempt from the first state (illiterate ignorance) and who are incapable of reaching the other...are dangerous, absurd and troublesome: such men bring disturbances to the world." Much to Montaigne's chagrin, however, he realizes that of all the people who might read and judge his essays, it is with the ones in the middle that they will probably find a home. I'm not sure what the second part of the essay has to do with "vain and cunning devices." Perhaps Montaigne, half-jokingly, places his essays into the cunning device category? And then he pokes fun at himself by saying his essays are too much for the "common vulgar mind" but not "unique" enough for the "outstanding ones." Yes, I think this might be the way to view this piece, first decrying the state of the world and then easing back with a little self-deprecation. I like Montaigne for that. It shows me that maybe he doesn't take himself quite as seriously as I thought he did. Whaddaya know? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Prayer"

More Ramblings

As I rambled the other day, I felt like I needed to start a new book because the ones I was reading were long (Don Quixote), a struggle (Castle of Crossed Destinies), or a diary (James Lees-Milne) good for only short bursts of attention. I thought I should finish Castle before beginning a new book, but just couldn't do it. So last night I read one story in Castle and pondered on what book I should begin. I wanted something very different than what I was reading. It came down to three books: About Grace by Anthony Doerr, Hippolyte's Island by Barbara Hodgson and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. About Grace didn't last long because it is a cold and snowy book, part of it takes place in Alaska. With the snow falling outside I needed something warmer. I read the first page of Hippolyte and the first page of Lamb, and while Hippolyte was promising, I decided to go with the complete irreverance of Lamb. I am glad I did. This book is funny--it has a bit of a Monty Python feel to it. One of the funniest scenes so far was Jesus', Joshua to friends and family, and Biff's escapade to circumcise the statue of Apollo that the Greek owner of a house Biff's father was building had brought onto the site. Needless to say, the circumcision went awry and Apollo lost a little more than his foreskin. I'll be reading this week's Montaigne essay today and very likely more of Lamb. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Bits and Pieces

Personally, I think Bush is the devil. Why is this necessary? I can understand that some people might find it cathartic to tell their stories, but I don't need to know the nitty-gritty details. It was so unimaginatively horrible that people preferred to jump out of windows to their death than to die inside the Trade Center. That takes my breath away. I don't need to know more. You can read Umberto Eco's lecture on books online I have't read the entire thing yet, but it looks promising. (link via Conversational Reading) The snow is coming down outside with no signs of letting up. This is the most snow we have had all season here in Minneapolis. Nature appears to have decided to make up for the lack by dumping a pile on us all at once. I'm tuckered out from shoveling when I got home from work this evening. My shoveling muscles have atrophied this winter. Since it's still coming down I'll be shoveling again in the morning. I am of the mind that multiple shovels are better than trying to remove several inches of snow all at once. So since I don't have to work tomorrow I am going to go make myself some hot coffee with a little chocolate in it, pull a quilt around my shoulders and stay up reading until my eyes get droopy and I can't make sense of the squiggles on the page.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


I thought I had read at least one Dorothy Sayers book and just couldn't remember what it was, but after looking at The Guardian's "guide", I see that I haven't. Hmm. Gotta give it a go sometime. I feel like I have not been progressing much through the books I'm reading this week in spite of chapters and page numbers telling me differently. I am on chapter 8 in Don Quixote, well ahead of the three chapters a week I had pledged to read (I began reading it on Sunday). I set aside volume two of Virginia Woolf's diary a couple weeks ago to delve into Ancestral Voices, one of many diaries by James Lees-Milne. It is sadly out of print here, but still seems to be in print in the UK, at least according to Amazon. Thank goodness for public libraries! It is a wonderful book and I am enjoying it very much. Lees-Milne worked for the National Trust and he knew lots of famous people. But in spite of my pleasure in reading it, it is not a book that can be read for any more than a half-hour at a time (hour tops). So it feels as though it is going slowly eventhough I am about midpoint. I am also reading Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I was really excited about it because he uses Tarot cards to tell the story and I have a Tarot card collection. But it is not what I had expected or hoped and I am struggling to get past that. I began the book several weeks ago but have been picking it up and putting it down and haven't been able to spend any sustained time. I think I finally had a break through with it last night but I'm just over half-way through it. As a consequence I have no idea what the first part was about. They are short stories so there is no sustained narrative to help me figure it all out. Very frustrating. I am itching to start a new book but I feel like I have to finish this one first. I hate when that happens.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Genre Fiction with Bite

A nice review at January Magazine of a newer book by Suzy McKee Charnas called Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms. I didn't know about this book. I read Motherlines and its two follow up books a couple years ago and liked them very much. I also read The Vampire Tapestry, a rather strange book, not the best, but it was interesting. The reviewer at January mentions liking to read science fiction/fantasy novels with smart, independent women and no dragons. She mentions several authors including Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ, but doesn't mention two of my favorites, Sheri S. Tepper and Octavia E. Butler. Tepper's Gate to Women's Country takes palce on earth sometime after a nuclear holocaust. And Butler's Parable of the Sower takes place in California when "gated community" has a whole new meaning. I have read several other books by these women and if you are looking for some genre fiction that isn't magic or fluff, give them a try.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Should I? Or Shouldn't I?

I am conflicted about the two new Chaucer books reviewed at the Times. I mean, Who Murdered Chaucer? was written by Terry Jones. Do I get the book because I like Monty Python? And Chaucer is by Peter Ackroyd (be sure to scroll down on the article and take a gander at his picture. His attempt at sexy but serious intellectual doesn't quite work for me). I can't say that I'm that interested in Chaucer. I've read some but not all of the Canterbury Tales in their original English with lots and lots of footnotes. It was well worth the struggle but not so fantastic that I wanted to read them all. So, do I get the books on the strength of the authors and hope that they will be interesting, or do I cave into my disinterest in Chaucer and potentially miss some good books?

English, American Style

If you live in the States, be sure to check out Do You Speak American on PBS tonight. I caught the first episode last week by accident and enjoyed it very much. Tonight is another episode. Don't worry if you missed the first one, you can join in on this one. It's quite fascinating. If you can't catch any of the shows, there is a book too. And the website has essays and interactive maps and all kinds of goodies.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Of Gods and Mortals

A co-worker of mine, who is a fairly recent college grad (1 year ago) and who had a double major in English Lit and Religious Studies, and I were talking a couple months ago about mythology and religion. The conversation came about after I made an offhand remark that we should call our still-in-design-phase online/email newsletter "Narcissus" since our print newsletter is called "Echoes." Everyone who heard me said, "huh?" Except her. She laughed, bless her. During our conversation she asked if I had ever read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. "No," I said. "You should," she told me, "you'll really like it." So I bought a copy and just now got around to reading it. And she was right. I do like it. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. It is set in Glome, a nonexistant country in the real world, north of Greece and faintly European. The book is written as a book written by Orual, the eldest daughter of the King of Glome. Orual is ugly, but smart and strong. She learns quickly from the Greek slave, the Fox, her father buys to teach her and her sister Redival. Their mother dies and the King remarries in hopes of having a son. But instead he gets another girl and another dead wife. The girl is called Istra which translates to Psyche in Greek. Since Orual is under the sway of the Fox they always call her Psyche. The country of Glome falls on bad times about the same time Psyche is in her mid to late teens. To save the country from utter ruin, the goddess Ungit demands a human sacrifice. The Priest of Ungit consults the signs and declares the sacrifice is to be Psyche. Psyche is all that is beautiful and good and to Orual, who has raised her, the Priest has made a mistake. But Psyche complies and is chained to a tree at the top of Ungit's mountain where she expects to be eaten by the Brute, the son of Ungit. The next day Glome's drought is over. Rain comes and things start to look better. Orual makes a secret journey to the mountain top to give her beloved sister's bones the proper burial they deserve. But she discovers that Psyche is alive and well and living in a lush valley just over the mountain top. Psyche says she is the wife of a god, though she does not know which one and has never seen his face. Orual thinks Pysche mad and devises a scheme with a lamp. Things go just as in the myth. The god banishes Psyche to a life of wandering and tells Orual that she is Psyche and will suffer the same fate. And that's just half the book. It goes on but I will spare you the details. Lewis manages to take the myth of Psyche and turn it into a story about faith. The Fox teaches Orual that there are no gods, that everything that happens has a natural explanation, that religion and the gods are nothing but stories we make up to explain what we don't understand. Orual sees evidence to the contrary:

The Fox had taught me to think--at any rate to speak--of the Priest as as of a mere schemer and a politic man who put into the mouth of Ungit whatever might most increase his own power and lands or most harm his enemies. I saw it was not so. He was sure of Ungit...Our real enemy was not a mortal. The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.
But Orual can't reconcile it with her belief in what the Fox tells her. Eventually she believes in the gods, but because they took Psyche away from her, she hates them. Till We Have Faces is Orual's complaint against the gods:
I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places? I say, therefore, that there is no creature so noxious to man as the gods. Let them answer my charge if they can.
The gods do answer Orual. And we discover that the book is not just about faith but also the journey of the soul:
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it, especially for those who enjoy myths and mythic retellings. This is the first C.S. Lewis book I have ever read--I didn't read the Narnia books when I was a kid. I will definitely be reading more of him in the future.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Good Beginning

quixotic 1. Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality. 2. Capricious; impulsive. [From English Quixote, a visionary, after Don Quixote, hero of a romance by Miguel de Cervantes. (The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition) And so I take up Don Quixote, on this the 400th anniversary of the publication of part one of what is widely considered the first western novel. In spite of the novel's importance and cultural pervasiveness I have never read it. In high school instead of reading the novel we watched the movie version of The Man from La Mancha. As a consequence, I know the general story and have the dreadful "Impossible Dream" song stuck in my head forever. It has been playing since I decided to meet the challenge of Sandra from Book World to actually read the book this year. I hope once I get into the book Cervantes' story will drown out the song. Sandra figured that Don Quixote can be read in one year if we read three chapters a week. And so she and I and Susan from Pages Turned are all going to give it a go. There is also a group of folks at Well-Educated Minds reading the book as well. I am excited about the undertaking. I tried to read the book once, long ago, but I didn't make it past chapter 20. At the last attempt I was reading the Signet Classic version translated by Walter Starkie. I still have this copy and my Bookman is going to attempt to read it while I read the newer Edith Grossman translation. I am not much for reading introductions to books, they always assume you have read the book already and give away the ending. So I save the intros until after I finish the book. But this time I decided to read the introduction and I am glad I did. Harold Bloom writes the intro to the Grossman translation. Normally I don't much care for Bloom--he is a smart man but likes to tell you how smart he is. But his intro is quite good. It has brought Don Quixote into some context for me. For instance I never realized that Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries and even died on the same day--April 23, 1616. Cervantes also had a rather hard life. At the age of 24 he was wounded at the naval battle of Lepanto and permanently lost the use of his left hand. In 1575 he was captured by Barbary pirates and spent five years as a slave in Algiers. He spent time as a spy for Spain in Portugal and Oran. Then he lived in Madrid where he tried to make a living writing plays but failed terribly. So he turned to tax collecting and was sent to jail in 1597 for alleged malfeasance. He was released and imprisoned again in 1605. Tradition has it that he began Don Quixote while in jail. He wrote part one quickly--it was published on this day in 1605. Part 2 was published in 1615. While Cervantes became famous after the publication of part one, his publisher stole all of his royalties. He would likely have died in poverty if it weren't for the patronage of a nobleman the last three years of Cervantes' life. Why is it that so many of the west's greatest artists suffer lives of poverty? It is such a common thing that poverty (and madness) are frequently viewed as part of the job description for any artist but particularly the writers living in a dark garret with bread, wine and his/her art as the only sustenance. But I digress. And so the quest of "the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha" begins. If nothing else, the book is so heavy that by the time I finish it I will have grown some nice muscles in my arms.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

To Laugh or to Cry

I will now attempt to wrap my fuzzy brain around Montaigne's "On Democritus and Heraclitus." Strangely, Montaigne spends a large part of this essay talking about why he is writing the essays in the first place. It isn't clear if Montaigne does this in order to justify them to his audience or to try and clarify the endeavor for himself. He declares that "Our power of judgment is a tool to be used on all subjects; it can be applied anywhere." As to how he chooses his subjects, he doesn't, he lets Fortune choose for him. And "scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me; I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance." So Montaigne chooses to apply his judgment to the subjects of his essays which Fortune supplies and in any manner he sees fit. In this way he hopes to find out about himself because "anything we do reveals us." In revealing himself he is taking responsibility for what "lies within." He seeks no excuses from "the external qualities of anything," because what we do, "our good or our bad depends on us alone." And then he turns to Democritus and Heraclitus. Both men were philosophers. Democritus, according to Montaigne, "finding our human circumstances so vain and ridiculous, never went out without a laughing and mocking look on his face." Heraclitus, on the other hand, "feeling pity and compassion for these same circumstances of ours, wore an expression which was always sad, his eyes full of tears." Montaigne prefers the philosophy of Democritus because laughing and mocking is "more disdainful and condemns us men more than the other--and it seems to me that, according to our deserts, we can never be despised enough." A rather dim view of humanity. As a reader I am left to wonder how the beginning and ending of this essay connect. Montaigne doesn't seem to ever be laughing or mocking himself in his essays, though by publishing them he "reveals" himself and thus makes an opening for others to laugh at him. I do often catch a sort of laughing undertone to Montaigne's essays, a people are silly chuckle. If the choice is between laughing or crying over the human condition, I think I have to side with Montaigne and Democritus. I don't hold with the laughing being more disdainful though. I just think that life requires that one have a good sense of humor. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Vain Cunning Devices"


One of the things I hate most about having a cold is that foggy, fuzzy feeling that takes over my head. I spent the day yesterday reading and napping and watching bad movies and napping and reading and did I mention napping? One of the bad movies I watched wasTroy. Hollywood managed to squeeze ten years of war into two weeks. It was a complete desecration of the Iliad, not even all that naked man-flesh could make up for it. The worst part is that there are now all sorts of people walking around out there who think they know the story of Troy because they saw the movie. The world isn't going to end because of that, but it is rather sad that the richness of the Iliad is thrown away so easily to make a few bucks. The other bad movie I watched was Matrix Reloaded. And as a consequence of all my napping I had some rather strange Matrix and Troy dreams. Neither managed to overlap, though Achilles vs. Neo would have been interesting.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Man from La Mancha

Don Quixote turns 400 and everyone is celebrating. Perhaps this year I will finally be able to read the whole thing.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Is it just me, or does The Seven Basic Plots sound so high school? You remember don't you, those five paragraph essays in English class on the great themes of literature like "man's inhumanity to man" and all that crap. Chrisopher Booker reworks it a bit, but it comes out basically the same:

Booker compiles a Jungian taxonomy of stories, distilling the entire history of the fictive arts into a handful of flexible but unbreakable archetypes—Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth—and then extracts from those seven imaginative drops a single battle royal between Dark and Light.
Gak! At least someone in Georgia is sane. Remember several months ago those stickers that said "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." They were going to be foisted upon unsuspecting schoolchildren. Well, the judge, he said no. I'm still sick with a cold. And currently it is -5 F outside. The weather forecasters say we won't go above zero until Monday or Tuesday next week. What is one to do when faced with the cold outside and a cold in the head? Why snuggle up in bed and read of course! Though last night I couldn't even read so my Bookman and I watched our DVD of Sense and Sensibility, the one written, produced and starring Emma Thompson. I like Thompson very much and the adaptation is quite enjoyable, but she really was a bit old to play Elinor. Tonight I'll be holding a book in my hands, at least for a little while. I'm not sure what that book will be though. I'm in the middle of several and I don't know which one my sick brain will fancy most.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Not feeling well today. Nasty head cold. I hope to be a bit better tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Witches and Wizards

If you're looking for a good read that is guaranteed to make you laugh, pick up a Terry Pratchett book. Equal Rites is a good one, though, I must admit, not as funny as some of his other Discworld books. In Equal Rites a powerful wizard shows up at the town of Bad Ass to pass on his staff and power to the in-the-process-of-being-born eighth son of an eighth son. Unfortunately, the wizard realizes too late that he was wrong and the baby is a girl. But girls can't be wizards, though no one knows why. All anyone knows is that a girl has never been a wizard before. So the family tries to forget anything ever happened. The local witch, Granny Weatherwax, present at Esk's birth realizes when Esk is still quite young, that she does indeed have magic powers. So she takes her in and starts training her in how to be a witch. But Esk has more power than Granny knows what to do with and so they set off to Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork. They have an eventful journey and arrive at the University only to be turned away because girls aren't allowed. But as Granny knows, and Esk finds out, there is more than one way to get into the University. And now, some excerpts to tickle your fancy:

For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all those books people were setting such store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy. Among the many things in the infinitely varied universe with which Granny did not hold was talking to dead people, who by all accounts had enough troubles of their own. --- "I look at it all like this," he said. "Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about all the little details of life. But now," he brightened up, "while I'm still confused and uncertain it's on a much higher plane, d'you see, and at least I know I'm bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe." Treatle nodded. "I hadn't looked at it like that," he said, "but you're absolutely right. He's really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance. There's so much about the universe we don't know." They both savored the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were ignorant of only ordinary things.
Is your fancy tickled? If you have never read Pratchett before it doesn't matter where you start in the Discworld books. They are not a series, they are just stories that all take place in the same world. So treat yourself to some brain candy, it's low carb and fat free.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Aspiring Novelists, Take Hope!

Let Stuart Hill inspire you:

Surrounded by best-sellers in the bookshop where he works, Stuart Hill spent years trying in vain to write his own masterpiece. Forever encircled by the literary triumphs of others, the frustrated novelist was on the point of giving up. Then, after staging a ceremonial burning of all his rejection slips from unimpressed publishers, the soft-spoken Hill decided on one last throw of the literary dice. Now, after two years spent tapping out a children's fantasy on the bookshop computer when there were no customers around, he has hit the jackpot. In a publishing industry revelling in hype, Hill is being hailed as the new JK Rowling and Hollywood is eager to film "The Cry of the Icemark", a page-turning tale of werewolves and vampires being published on Monday. Determined to keep his feet on the ground, the 46-year-old plans to retain his 11,000 pounds a year job as bookshop assistant in the provincial English town of Leicester.
(link via Bookninja) And he has even gone and won a prize And then there is Helen Oyeyemi who didn't even know she was writing a book

Sunday, January 09, 2005

English Language Smackdown

William Deresiewicz writes a wonderful essay for the Sunday NY Times about English. In it he cites two newer books, The Stories of English by David Crystal and Do You Speak American? by Robert MacNeil and William Cran. The essay begins:

I came across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: ''The following methodology was utilized.'' I see this kind of thing all the time. Not ''the following method was used''; not ever ''this is what I did.'' Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English.
Members of the Grammar Police will be sad to know that they are out of a job because, well, there is not such thing as Correct English. Yes, there is Standard English, used by government, the press, the academy and business, but even Standard English has a high degree of variation in it. The idea of Correct English began in the 18th century and has much to do with class. Correct English is not the same as Standard English. Correct English is prescriptivist while Standard English is descriptivist. But the Grammar Police have superiority issues and feel the need to cram Correct English down our throats. The Grammar Police drive me nuts. I have an M.A. in English Literature. I can diagram sentences (talk about the biggest waste of time ever). I can speak and write perfectly fine English. But I don't. Sometimes I'm lazy. But most of the time it's because I don't want to sound like someone with a stick up their ass. And I never, NEVER, correct anyone even if what was said is equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard (my own internal grammar monitor can only tolerate so much). I think humiliating someone is rude and unnecessary. It might make you feel superior but everyone else thinks you're a putz and will very soon stop talking to you altogether. Besides, English is a living language and living languages evolve. That is one of the things I like best about English. We borrow words from other languages, we create new meanings for old words, and make up new words when what we have does not suffice. As Deresiewicz so aptly quotes Wittgenstein, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." And I don't know about you, but I'm always ready to expand my world's horizons.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hi-Ho Silver!

Montaigne liked horses. Not the My Little Pony kind of horse, or the hard working plow horse. No, Montaigne, being a gentleman and a manly sort of man, admired war horses. In his essay "On War-Horses," he fairly gushes about them. Now, a horse to Montaigne, an "entire horse," as he calls it, "is a stallion with ears and mane; no other will pass muster." These horses have spirit and fight in them. Montaigne admires horses that have been taught to assist their rider's in battle, horses that have been taught "to run down anyone who threatens them with a naked sword and to kick and to bite all those who make or come straight for them." Taking a horse into battle, however, may give you an advantage over an unhorsed foe, but it also adds to your own personal risk. Apparently, once a war-horse gets itself all worked up in the fray it is almost impossible to control any longer. You also risk your own valor and fortune. When on horseback, your fate and that of the horse is tied together. Therefore "its wounds and its death involve your own; its fear or its impetuosity make you too either cowardly or foolhardy; if it does not respond to bit or spur it is your honour which has to answer for it." Montaigne makes a digression into a discussion on the weapons of war. He suggests choosing the shortest weapons because you have more control over them. And don't use a pistol. There are too many things that can go wrong. It is an "ineffectual weapon" that Montaigne hopes we give up using. Would he ever be surprised at their proliferation these days. Though he'd also be surprised at how easy they are to use. Too easy in my opinion. The essay then meanders back to war horses and stories from history about them. Montaigne mentions the Spaniards coming to the Americas and bringing horses with them:

those new people of the Indies thought that both the men and the horses were either gods or animate creatures of nobler or higher nature than theirs. When those Indians were defeated some, coming to seek peace and pardon from the men, brought offerings of gold and food which they did not omit to offer to the horses as well, addressing speeches to them exactly as to the humans, interpreting their whinnying as the language of compromise and truce.
Unfortunately the horses weren't the ones in charge. If they were the world would be a whole lot different these days. Another interesting historical note in this essay. Even in the 16th century they had trick riders. Montaigne tells of a man he saw who "rode over a hat, shot backwards at it with his bow, hitting it repeatedly; he picked up anything he liked, with one foot on the ground and the other still in the stirrup--and many other tricks by which he earned his living." Wild Bill's Wild West show was not original after all. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Democritus and Heralitus"

Friday, January 07, 2005

Must. Resist. Urge.

All but one of the books I ordered arrived. My first impulse after petting them all is to put them on my bedside pile, but I have a resolution. So at the moment they are sitting on a corner of my desk until I decide what to do about them. Some of them will go downstairs into the library while others will find a home on "my" bookshelf where I keep books of literary essays. If you're trying to decide what to read next and have heard great things about Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, you might want to think twice before spending your well earned cash. Check out Theo Tait's review at the LRB

Tom Wolfe is, in many ways, an outrageous figure – with his white suit and cane, his glib social analyses, and his delusions of grandeur. For three decades he has been saying that his minutely researched books herald ‘a revolution’ in literature, which is bound to ‘sweep the arts in America, making many prestigious artists . . . appear effete and irrelevant’. Over the years, a lot of these effete and irrelevant artists – John Updike, Norman Mailer, Jonathan Franzen – have launched tirades against him. The most concise comes from John Irving, commenting red-faced and furious on live TV: ‘Wolfe’s problem is, he can’t bleeping write! He’s not a writer! Just crack one of his bleeping books! Try reading one bleeping sentence! You’ll gag before you can finish it! He doesn’t even write literature – he writes . . . yak! He doesn’t write novels – he writes journalistic hyperbole!’ These comments, graciously reported by Wolfe himself, don’t seem entirely fair to me. They do, however, perfectly describe his bloody awful new novel I am Charlotte Simmons.
My Bookman is listening to the book unabridged in his car and told my yesterday that I shouldn't bother reading it. Perhaps you might want to consider reading Edith Wharton. House of Mirth is one of my favorites.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Creative Thinking

I have a project I have to finish tonight so don't have time for more than a "quickie." Margaret Atwood can now add inventor to her resume. Apparently her last book tour was so exhausting it got her to thinking. Her thinking led to the creation of a machine, but not just any machine:

The machine, created in consultation with computer experts under Atwood's newly created company Unotchit Inc., is still in the development phase, but at the moment it will comprise two units. The first will consist of a screen, where the author can see and speak to the book reader in real-time, and a tablet on which the author will write the inscription. The second unit will be with the book reader, and will also include a screen to communicate with the author in real-time, and will have a flat book holder as well as an electronic arm and pen that will scrawl out the autograph. The system will allow the inscription to be edited or spell-checked before being committed to paper and the quality of the signature should be identical to one done in person, Atwood says. The book reader will also be able to keep a record of the on-screen interaction with the author for posterity.
Before you start bemoaning the end of author tours, know that the machine is not intended to replace readings, but to help facilitate more interaction between author and reader. An author can't go to every city on a tour, but with the help of the machine (I hope she comes up with an interesting name for it), the author can sign books in places she is unable to visit. Kind of spiffy if you ask me.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Of Elves and Men

The Birmingham nature reserve has been renamed The Shire Country Park. The name change coincides with J.R.R. Tolkein's 113th birthday on January 3rd. It is widely believed that the reserve formerly known as Birmingham provided Tolkein with much inspiration for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. How appropriate then that I just completed reading The Silmarillion. I tried to read this book ages ago when I was about 14 after I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I didn't make it far though. I thought it was boring and confusing and couldn't keep track of all the names especially when they kept changing. But my Bookman and I have been enjoying all of the documentaries on the extended edition DVD of Return of the King. Jackson and others keep mentioning all these things that didn't happen in the books but that helped them create the movies. So I decided to give The Silmarillion another go. I am glad I did. This time I enjoyed it very much. I think it had something to do with the fact that I know the ring story so much better and recognize names and some events in the mythology. The Silmarillion, in case you haven't read it, contains several different stories. The main portion of the book consists of "Ainulindalë," "Valaquenta" and "The Silmarillion". These stories tell of the creation of Middle Earth, elves, men and dwarves. It also has the complete story of Beren and Luthien in it. These are wonderful creation stories in which good and evil are created side by side, the creator, Illuvitar, claiming that even evil has its place and purpose. The writing is graceful and imparts an ancient and almost biblical feeling to the story. Also in this book is "Akallabêth" which tells the story of the rise and fall of Numenor and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" which tells about the creation of the rings, the first battle of the ring and a brief bit that leads up to The Fellowship of the Ring. There are indexes, genealogies and pronunciation information. If you are a Tolkein fan and have not read this book, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

No Hit Here

Okay, I can now post about Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins because I have thought of something nice to say. I'll get to that later though. John Perkins was an economic hit man, or EHM as he calls it. As an EHM he worked for a company called MAIN and then as a consultant and expert witness for a company called SWEC. As an EHM his job as he describes it, "was to convince third world countries to accept enormous loans for infrastructure development--loans that were much larger than needed--and to guarantee that the development projects were contracted to U.S. corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel. Once these countries were saddled with huge debts, the U.S. government and the international aid agencies allied with it were able to control these economies and to ensure that oil and other resources were channeled to serve the interests of building a global empire." This is bad stuff, horrible stuff, unconscionable stuff, but hardly a surprise, at least if you pay attention and get your news other places besides FOX. But Perkins writes the entire book as if he is revealing secrets to the ignorant masses. If that wasn't bad enough, this guy was an insider, someone involved in Panama, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, and he mentions hardly a detail that you couldn't have researched for yourself. I mean, I know and have known for quite some time that this kind of stuff goes on, but he is so far away from concrete details that I wondered what was the point? But then I'd see the title and I would remember. Ah yes, confession. This isn't a book whose purpose if to reveal the ugly underbelly of globalization and U.S. empire building, this book is just a confession, a means for Perkins to let out his guilt in hopes of receiving a little compassionate forgiveness. His guilt is evident throughout the book and he agonizes over it frequently. He worked as a "hit man" for MAIN from 1971 until 1980 and as he writes it he worried about what he was doing the whole time. But obviously it didn't worry him too much since he stuck with it for 9 years. After those 9 years he started his own alternative energy company with great success. He fully admits that he got loans and favors from people because of his former work. At this time he was also on a paid retainer with SWEC as a consultant. He was rarely consulted about anything, they just used his name and resume to push through loans and projects in third world countries. Perkins claims his conscious bothered him during this time too. But it didn't stop him from saying no to any favors or cashing that consultant check. He sold his energy company sometime around 2000 and at that time also quit SWEC. Only after the tragedy of September 11th did he decide that he had to write this book. One of the really annoying things about this book is Perkins' seeming innocence about the people he worked with at MAIN. He knew full well what he was doing and the impact it would have on the lives of people in poor countries but he seems to think that his staff was clueless. He claims that he "often felt jealous of my employees for their naiveté. I had intentionally deceived them and in so doing, had protected them from their own consciences. They did not have to struggle with the moral issues that haunted me." And then later in the book:

Some of them, like me, had been aware of what they were doing, but the vast majority had merely performed the tasks they had been taught in business, engineering, and law schools, or had followed the lead of bosses in my mold, who demonstrated the system by their own greedy example and through rewards and punishments calculated to perpetuate it. Such participants saw the parts they played as benign, at worst; in the most optimistic view, they were helping an impoverished nation. Although unconscious, deceived, and--in many cases--self-deluded, these players were not members of any clandestine conspiracy; rather, they were the product of a system that promotes the most subtle and effective form of imperialism the world has ever witnessed.
Perhaps there were some who didn't know what they were really doing, but to say that most of them were completely ignorant? Come on, these are not stupid people. Most of them knew, and know, exactly what's going on and their part in it. These days Perkins writes bad books and "teaches about achieving peace and prosperity by expanding our personal awareness and transforming our institutions." He is the founder of a "New Age" organization called Dream Change that works to "wake up the world." Yup. And now, the nice thing. I believe that in spite of Perkins' bad writing, New Age enlightenment and pervasive whining guilt, he is sincere. There, that was nice wasn't it? Now, don't bother reading this book. If you want to know more about this stuff, read Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy. They are accessible and don't pull their punches and they give you the nitty gritty details that Perkins doesn't. Oh and just for the record, this book was chosen by one of the people in my occasional book group. I did not freely pick up this book. Book group is going to be a hoot!

Monday, January 03, 2005

This and That

The Guardian has books to watch out for in 2005. One of them includes a new one by Kazuo Ishiguro called Never Let Me Go. It is apparently a science fiction novel. Should be interesting. At the NY Times, Cynthia Ozick writes about her first book tour. A nice write up at the Denver Post about lit blogs. (link via Bookninja) One lucky blogger striving to read 52 books in 52 weeks is being sponsored by a bookstore. Atomic Books is providing the year's reading material. The catch is that the staff at the bookstore get to pick the books. That would make me a little nervous, but, hey, free books. (link via Bookslut) That should keep you busy for at least a few minutes. And it has allowed me to post without reviewing the book I finished the other day, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. My Mom and Disney's Bambi (remember Thumper?) taught me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. So I'm working up at least one nice thing I can say before I post about it. Maybe I'll have it by tomorrow.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Fortune's Judgment

In "On the Uncertainty of Our Judgment," Montaigne once again considers the role of Fortune. As in his essay "Fortune is Often Found in Reason's Train," Montaigne here questions the role of Fortune in human judgment. Here he uses examples from war to illustrate his point. For instance, do you taunt and insult your enemy before a battle in order, as reason suggests, to break their morale? But taunting can have the opposite result as Vitellius found out when confronting Otho from Rome. The insults and mocking so maddened Otho's army that they were driven by their rage and fought more fiercely and bravely than they would have otherwise and sent Vitellius on the run. So it goes in other instances. Do you charge or do you wait? Do you fight the battle on your own land or abroad? Do you richly arm and attire your soldiers or give them the barest essentials? Do you chase down your enemy when they are in retreat or let them get away? Montaigne provides examples where it went well and ill for both decisions. Thus he concludes, "events and their outcomes depend especially in war, mainly on Fortune, who will not submit to our reasoning nor be subject to our foresight." Then he quotes from Astronomic by Manilius:

Badly conceived projects are rewarded; foresight fails, for Fortune does not examine causes nor follow merit but meanders through everything without distinction. Clearly there is Something greater which drives and controls us and subjects the concerns of men to laws of its own.
And finally, Montaigne quotes Timaeus in Plato, "We argue rashly and unadvisedly because in our reasoning as in ourselves, a great part is played by chance." And so the point is made. We cannot trust the certainty of our judgments or our reasoning because Fortune is at play and we do not know what is truly in store for us. What a precarious situation this places us in, it is as if we are teetering on a tightrope above the abyss. What a happy thought. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On War-Horses"

Reading with Your Ears

An interesting essay by Lawrence Block at the Village Voice on audiobooks. I am not much of an audiobook reader, my commute is less than ten minutes, but I have enjoyed a good book while driving on a trip or while working on a project at home (the Lord of the Rings Books and Harry Potter are wonderful). My Bookman loves audiobooks and always has one in the car. Like Block, neither of use ever listens to abridgements. I don't read abridged books, why would I want to listen to one? It's like Block says,

The audiobook I recorded of All the Flowers Are Dying runs 53,000 words; the unabridged version, which Alan Sklar will narrate for BBC America, runs to 99,000 and change. Anyone who listens to my version will get the story. They'll know what happens, although a whole subplot's been excised, but they'll miss far too much of what most concerned me as a writer. The book's the 16th in my Matthew Scudder series, and what the book is about, as much as its plot, is aging and mortality, and Scudder's response thereto. All of it grist, alas, for the abridger's mill. And how could it be otherwise? What sort of book could be cut essentially in half without losing a certain something?
Unfortunately for readers, abridgements abound and in spite of how inexpensive CDs have become, full length audiobooks will take a big bite out of your wallet. Full length audiobooks are hard to get at the library too, especially in this time of budget cuts. So what's a person to do? You could always rent a book or download the book for a reduced price. Perhaps as audiobooks become more popular publishers will start to lower the price to be more in line with the price of the hardcover book. But maybe that's just wishful thinking.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Confession, Excuse, Resolution

Confession When I mention on occasion the teetering pile of books next to my bedside I am referring to a real pile of books. Actually there are three piles. And these piles are getting out of control. I currently have over 60 books stacked there; they are so packed in that I can't count them all. There are eight books with bookmarks in them. For some reason I am embarrassed by this pile. I am not sure if it is a sign of laziness and untidiness. Or it could be a sign that my family's pack-rat gene, which I thought I had avoided, is alive and well. Or I could just have a severe book addiction. Whatever it is, it is out of control. Excuse I only put books on the pile that I really want to read. I mean to get to each book that is sitting there "next." But there are too many books to be next and sometimes a book that wasn't even on the pile gets to be next. The pile also serves as a way to not forget the books that I really want to read sooner rather than later. I used to be more efficient about putting away books that I wasn't going to read immediately. But then I found that I would forget about them completely. I tried keeping a list to help me remember but that didn't work. So I began piling up the books. Now even this has failed me because I don't even know what is on the bottom. Nonetheless all the books are there for a reason and I am reluctant to do anything about it. But I am afraid that a disaster might happen. The next book I put on top might tip it all over and damage might occur. I also like to have a glass of water or a hot drink next the bed when I am reading there and I worry that I might spill. I have before but there were fewer books at the time. Resolution So, I resolve that by the end of the year I will have only 20 books next to the bed. That includes all the books I am in the middle of reading. I need the whole year to do it so I don't get post traumatic stress disorder from the sudden change. To help make it a gradual change I will have "only" 47 books there by April 30th. By August 31st the number will be whittled down to 34. And then by December 31st there will be 20. I am already worried about the pile shrinking. For some reason I find security stacked there. It's sort of like Granny Next's "curse." She couldn't die until she had read the world's ten most boring books. For me my pile of books means that nothing truly bad could ever happen as long as I have all those books I still have to read. It is sort of silly. And it isn't as if the books, not being in the pile, will disappear. I will still have them, they will just be shelved in the library. And that is the bright spot in all this. I will be made to visit the library in the basement more often. And since I have trouble remembering all the books that my Bookman and I own, I will have the pleasure of discovery and surprise. What a nice thing that will be, that little bubbly feeling in the stomach and shiver of excitement. Thats sounds like falling in love doesn't it? Well then, this resolution might not be so bad after all.