Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Someone Should Write History

I should probably offer an excuse for talking about a book about the French Revolution, lest somebody say, "Yea but how is that, like, relevant, man?"  The answer is that much of what we call political news and "current events" is really just fighting the French Revolution all over again.

Details. Do I ever hate details in history books. Consider a book on the causes of the French Revolution: the author could grind through the legal system, economic conditions, etc. All very important of course. But what a tedious bore!

Consider the rather different approach used by Simon Schama, in "Citizens," A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Old-regime France had been no stranger to public ceremonies and spectacles. But your place near the viewing stand was controlled by the aristocratic pecking order.

Then, in the 1780s, public spectacles saw a radical change. Balloons became the high-tech rage. Once they were in the air, it all viewers had the same view.
In other words, [the balloonists] succeeded in establishing a direct and unmediated relationship of comradeship with enormous multitudes of people.
...As a spectacle it was unpredictable; its crowds were incoherent, spontaneous and viscerally roused...
The sense that they were witnessing a liberating event--and augury of a free-floating future--gave them a kind of temporary fellowship in the open air... exemplified the philosopher's vision of a festival of freedom: uplifting glimpses of the Sublime in which the experience, not the audience, was noble.
What a gorgeous metaphor! I will always think of it first when reading about any kind of revolution.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Benefits of Classic Books

At the beginning of World War II, George Orwell started an essay off, as German bombs fell in his neighborhood. It was a scary time for the Brits. His essay was full of a determined optimism. He concluded with a prophecy of how the war would go:
...but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.
That sentence knocked me over, when I first read it. Looking back at it later, I wondered why it made such an impression. After all, it essentially says what the old proverb does: 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.'

Although there is some historical glamor to discovering some "new" truth, this experience reminds an individual how exciting (and more frequent) it can be to rediscover an old truth. Old truths become uninspiring as they devolve into bumper sticker slogans and one-liners. They become stale clich├ęs.

An individual must stretch to see their own particular experiences as a thinly-disguised reprise of something larger and more universal. For instance I play with that idea when mountain biking in the western states, by seeing the mountain biker as the reincarnation of the cowboy-era archetype of the 'lone rider of the plains', who in turn was just a reincarnation of the European knight-errant of the Middle Ages.

I doubt that motor-sport people appreciate that connection. They probably think that a mountain biker is just a health nut/exercise puritan.

Do you think that they see their sport as the reinvention of something noble and timeless? Perhaps they do, but I can't imagine what it would be.

More generally, creative re-invention is the purpose of reading classic books, quite unlike many people's notion that one reads them just for the snob appeal, or as a form of literary ancestor worship. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

When a Significant Book Strikes You

Occasionally the lyrics of a song can make a great impression on the listener. They aren't just trying to rhyme. Nor are they wailing about their frustrated lusts and infatuations. The thoughts are important and fundamental, and they managed to make them so concise that they fit into a song. Incredible!

Books can be like that, too. The 'soul' of the reader is so weary of being insignificant flotsam, rushed along by the cultural effluvium of the times. If it manages to get even a glimpse of a truthful Big Picture, then life hasn't been wasted.

That is the effect that reading a book had on me, recently. The book was Pat Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War." You may enjoy the book even if you don't agree with every opinion of his.

Here we are, a century after the 'Great War,' and we are still suffering the consequences of World Wars I and II and the Cold War. None of the fundamental assumptions of the American Empire ever get talked about in the daily news. 

The glorification of the military can not be questioned in America. Flying on an airplane for the first time in 20 years, I noticed them announcing that military personnel were allowed to board the plane first. How hopeful it would have made me if ten civilians had shouted 'Why?' when that announcement was made. At least I had the satisfaction of boycotting my sister's burial in a national military cemetery, you know, with all the other "heroes who have sacrificed to protect our freedoms." I would believe in the Easter Bunny before I believed that whopper.

By taking aim at the foundation (or 'creation') myth of the American Empire, the "Good War" of World War II, Buchanan is doing a bold thing. Doesn't it seem strange that an Irish Catholic kid like Pat would be such a radical debunker of the prevailing myth of modern America?

Perhaps not. Maybe the greatest courage is likely to be demonstrated by the believers in one myth, such as Buchanan's Catholicism, when they take aim at a rival myth.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Moab Is Hopeless, But Is That So Bad?

Is there something cheerful to think about when you are in Moab, UT? Let's be playful and take it as a challenge. (And no, red rock scenery doesn't count.) So far I am drawing blanks...

1.  And yet look at all the people milling around town: they seem pleased to be here. They must be doing something right. Enjoying Moab vicariously seems like the only approach that might pay off.

To fail at this completely is still good news, if it helps me to appreciate novelists and scriptwriters. This could be a big deal to me. Just think how good they must be at putting themselves into other people's 'shoes' in order for their novel or script to be the least bit interesting!

2. Quite separate from the angle of vicarious enjoyment, there is a second approach that ties in with the book I am reading, by Siedentop. Why did early Christians choose Hope as one of their cardinal virtues? I think it is pernicious. It only leads to disappointment and disillusionment.

I came to Moab without any hope whatsoever. Therefore there is nothing to lose. It's a genuinely peaceful and secure feeling. Somehow Moab may be tricked into surprising me on the up-side.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Pleasure of Meeting Intelligent People

What do people think of when they first think about intelligent people? Is it somebody with little personality who grinds away at their career all the time? Or is it somebody who appears superficially polite, but actually is snide and supercilious?

I'll bet they don't think of the pleasure an intelligent person can give to other people. Let me give you a little anecdote about being on the receiving end of this. But first you must bear the set up.

I was in Cortez Colorado, looking to buy a new Utah atlas, either the DeLorme or Benchmark version. This area caters to tourists, and it is the closest small city to the Four Corners. So you would expect it to be easy to buy an atlas for any of the four states.

Wrong. I failed to find these atlases in a half dozen places. The frustration was worsened by driving from place to place while pulling my trailer. Towing a trailer is a terrible way to knock off errands in a city.

If a sensible person were replacing a hardware or mechanical part, they would bring the old worn-out part to the store, and spare everybody the frustration of spewing out verbiage to the store's employee. But I was too foolish to do that, because I had already decided that this errand should be easy.  

What blank, uncomprehending stares I got from the employees! One woman reminded me of the look that cows give when you encounter them on dirt roads in the forest.

At first I thought that Benchmark and DeLorme were terms only known to the cognoscenti of the outdoors. So I softened my approach by only using the term 'atlas.' But even that term confused these blockheads. And here I thought the average second grader knew what an atlas was!

With a certain amount of hope I went into a visitor's center that was connected to nearby Mesa Verde national park. It disappeared when I saw the first customer: he looked like a New York tourist visiting Florida in 1960. The store was filled with Native American kitsch souvenirs and coffee table books. Jean Jacques Rousseau would have loved this place. But no atlases.

Sometimes they could read my frustration, and then returned it. But I just couldn't believe that I was unable to make myself understood when talking to people who spoke English as a first language.

Finally, as a broken man, I went into Walmart and threw myself on the mercy of an employee. She wasn't just sentient -- which is all one could reasonably expect in a Walmart -- she had a mind like a steel trap. She sent me right to the place, although Walmart just sells the old Rand-McNally highway atlases that get the mass tourist to Disney World, Las Vegas, or the national parks in the West.

That wasn't her fault. When I left the store I still felt dazzled by the eager pounci-ness of her mind.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Visualizing a Book Correctly

It is a great project for a camper to wean themselves from an internet addiction. It is so strange the way you miss it most for the first day or two. When you finally debauch yourself by backsliding into Sin, you expect some huge rush of pleasure. Surprisingly you end up curling your lip and saying, "They're still talking about the same old crap. Why am I wasting my time?"

Why indeed? The benefits of cutting the daily cord are huge for a camper. They can choose so many more locations. The feeling of (soft) adventure comes back.

But 'fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue,' as the old Roman writer/poet, Horace, said. A camper has a lot of time on their hands. If you remove the internet, you have to add something else. Like what?

Books, let's say. I've never really been a good reader. I'm not referring to speed and comprehension. There has always been a problem with my... attitude. Actually it may have been lethargic visualization.

Let's take a brief digression before getting back to this issue.  This summer I have done a great job staying cool at high altitude. Several times I have camped next to the GDMBR, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Once I was leaving camp and saw a tent and two bikes in a high pasture. I asked if they needed water. They didn't, but they invited me for tea. It was a father/daughter team from England. I accidentally bumped into them two more times on the GDMBR. We had a brief visit each time.

The daughter had a doughty attitude to her first bicycle tour: "We never look at the next section of the trail maps until we finish the current one!"

Why wouldn't that trick work with books? The sheer weight of the literary lumber is so off-putting. That is the psychological trick that the internet exploits: it screams, "Don't read that long-winded, mouldy ol' book. Read my headlines, my brief article, my sensational photos or video! The book and author are long dead, but my drivel happened 3.5 microseconds ago!" 

But why think about the book's 600 pages? Why not just think about the 10 page chapter? So thank you, Georgiana from England, for making me concentrate on this need.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Metaphors with a Life of Their Own

Hopefully I will continue to do certain things right on this blog: not over-selling travel, and not over-emphasizing books. Carried to extreme, both of these things are more than merely ridiculous. They are vices.

But combine two things that don't appear to be all that related, and some magic happens. Maybe that is what thinking is all about. When travel and books are combined, some memorable pleasure can happen. It won't happen often.

'Be careful what you wish for...' is an old adage that must be in many people's Top Ten list. During the fire season in late May and June in the Southwest, I yearn almost obsessively for higher humidity, clouds, and rain. Well, we got some all right. Over the holiday weekend I spent a day or two holed up in my little camper-trailer, unable to do much of anything outdoors. Actually, what is there to do indoors, other than read books? (I had no internet connection.)

The good news is that I had an awfully good book to read; it was turning out to be fascinating, and on an important topic, too. Still, hour after hour in a chair, and with so little sunlight that I doubted whether the solar panels would charge the batteries. (I only have two small windows and a roof vent.)

Who was the writer who said, "...sicklied over, by the pale cast of thought"? Something seems wrong with the universe when sun doesn't shine -- at this time of the year, in this part of world. At moments the rectangle of soggy, half-hearted light hitting my kitchen counter would brighten. Usually, the edge of this anti-shadow would crispen. It seemed to almost crackle with fire. I would jump away from the book, and run to my solar controller to see what amperage appeared.

Why was it so important to see a number? But it was! And then the crisp rectangle would melt into near nothingness, and Hope sank back into the cold mud. On and on this went. Would I see a high amperage only when the edge of the rectangle was crisp, or would the overall brightness of the rectangle of light matter more? I got sucked into being obsessively observant of the number of amps versus the visual and emotional impression of it.

Then it hit me: that I was acting out in my camping-life, exactly what the book was about. The book was "Rousseau and Romanticism," by Irving Babbitt. (free ebook at The author spent quite a bit of time explaining the conflict between the Romanticist and the humanistic Classicist. Since it was a busy holiday weekend, there were opportunities to observe real people and wonder how they and their style fit into this book. More of that later, perhaps.

For the time being, I can only gush how charming it is to have a metaphor creep up on you like this. Normally you think of a metaphor as being deliberately created by the writer. But when the self-consciousness disappears, and the metaphor comes in from the outside and imposes itself on you, it seems so much more alive and exciting.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Perfection at 'Experiencing a Book'

Perfection has never been my ideal. Not everybody thinks like that. Many people may remember Curly's (Jack Palance's) speech about the beautiful woman backlit by the sun, in "City Slickers". Or consider the climax of "The Red Violin". There are other examples of worshiping perfection as an ideal from the days of chivalry, religious devotion, or military courage.

All I can say is, they are welcome to it, if that is what they want. For my part, I will continue to believe in the semi-universal S-shaped curve for Benefits versus Costs. (Notice the 'semi'.)

But it is always fun to make an exception. My recent problems with a broken leaf spring on my trailer resulted in a perfect experience of a certain type.

It was so easy to admire the competence and usefulness of the mechanic who drove the tow truck to my trailer, and then repaired it. He knew where to get the replacement part quickly, whereas I would have bounced around on the internet for hours, spending most of that time reading half-truths and advertisements. 

He managed to get the trailer onto the flat bed of the trailer, with one inch of space on the side of the trailer's wheels. (Recall, it has outboard wheel wells.)

He was not chatty, but neither was he grumpy. He was simply taciturn in a professional sort of way.

In contrast, consider the dispatcher at the towing service, Coachnet. Both the service and the young man dispatcher were excellent at their jobs. But why so much extraneous information? Is that all the world amounts to anymore: a bunch of cubicle-thralls entering unnecessary information into a computer system? 

The dispatcher's job was somewhat squishy and subjective, whereas the mechanic's job had more objective criteria. There is no guessing about whether he succeeded or not.

The dispatcher was a bit better spoken. Was he a college boy? Is his job an example of a 'knowledge worker', of the type that our service economy is supposed to need? The dispatcher was not wearing grease-stained coveralls as the mechanic was. So he is a 'white collar' worker.

Do you really believe that the dispatcher is as skilled as the mechanic?

This is the perfect example of what Matthew Crawford was writing about in "...Working with Your Hands...", a book that I had just finished before this leaf spring problem happened.

One more thing: the young mechanic might end up owning the auto garage someday. It is the only one in town. The dispatcher will never own Coachnet.  He will spend his whole life in fear of downsizing. But since insurance companies don't really compete with Chinese labor -- and why don't they? -- he may survive. He might even become a manager there someday. Whoopee.

Perhaps I should collect some of Crawford's juicy quotes, which encourage a more favorable view towards skilled professionals who work with their hands, instead of automatically assuming the superiority of white collar, college-educated Nobodies, who are really nothing more than petty clerks.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dealing with a Difficult Writer

For the umpteenth time I have started some Dostoevsky novels and short stories, only to surrender 50 pages in. Yes I know, it seems like common sense to be a good sport about this, to shrug it off, and to move on to a different writer. But it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt to a writer who has a high reputation. On the other hand, I should dismiss the opinion of the "experts" if it doesn't agree with my own experience.

Perhaps the best reason for not giving up on Dostoevsky too soon is that something might be gained by trying to explain why reading him just doesn't work for me. I used to think that his books had too much religious guilt and physical suffering in them for my tastes. Russians are pretty good at suffering, but I am not.

The more I thought about it, this time around, the more the blame went to his unsympathetic characters. I simply don't care what happens to his characters, and therefore, have no interest in the story. Don't think that I am lobbying for perfect characters or goodie-two-shoes. Such characters would be pretty boring, actually. But they have to have something about them that makes you want to "stick" for them.

Perhaps Dostoevsky did think his characters were somewhat sympathetic. Read a biographical blurb on him sometime. It is amazing what he survived. Perhaps he lost track of how weak and spoiled his readers are compared to the hardships of his own life. (And that includes me.)

Well then, if this is the right explanation for my difficulty in reading Dostoevsky, what should he have done? I am not going to argue that he should have given up at being a serious writer, and devolved into a pulp writer, who follows all the easy formulas that make a book a commercial success.

But couldn't he have let the reader 'come up for air' now and then, with more action, some humor, or even a little romance, as silly as that sounds. But this doesn't sound very inspiring to a serious writer, does it? It sounds like I'm advocating watering his work down. It might backfire because of its obvious condescension to the readers.

Isn't there a way to admit and accept the readers' humanity, including their weaknesses, without being condescending? Is there some way to visualize adding things to his books, rather than merely diluting them?

If reading his books is an non-success story for me, we need to come up with success stories. Next time I will give examples of movies that talked about serious subjects in a non-serious way; and by doing so, they fit better with an audience that isn't superhuman, but merely human.

Here I am, trying to make an allowance for my readers' humanity by offering some eye-candy in a Nevada arroyo. But it has nothing to do with the post, so it backfires, because it treats the reader in a condescending way.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Under the Sway of the Consummate Conversationalists

Very well then, I'll admit it: I am currently under the tutelage of Addison & Steele. It is a bit amusing to see the location of their writing given at the top of each 'post': "From my apartment," or "From X coffee shop," or "Y's Chocolate Shoppe." It is so similar to listing the name of the forest or town at the top of a travel blog post.

Can any modern reader not feel some envy at Addison & Steele's success at having interesting conversations with interesting characters in the shoppes? If you put these authors into a time machine, and inserted them into the average Starbuck's outlet today, what would they think? Surely they would see 300 years of civilizational decline right in front of their faces.

In post after post these authors comment on what makes for pleasant conversation between good-natured people. And they describe the failures, too.

Should a blogger try to emulate their good-natured and polite conversations in those shoppes? Yes, when the blogger is face to face with a real person in a chair. But what about when the blogger is writing?

The 'medium is the message', after all. Writing is different than talking. Writing and reading is a conversation between two minds; the two individuals do not know each other, nor do they pretend to be each others buddies. 

In contrast, talking takes place between faces and personalities. It is great when two people, face to face, put each other at ease, and win each others goodwill, and then go on to share conviviality, rather like dogs disporting with each other at the dog park.

But if the written word did nothing more than imitate the spoken word, wouldn't it be missing a real opportunity to 'add value'? Wouldn't the written word simply devolve into an exchange of routine pleasantries and platitudes? Where is the challenge, the getting to the (sometimes grim) truth of the topic of conversation? Would anyone learn anything?

Still, there has to be an upper limit to the bluntness of a writer. The reader is still a human being. Perhaps, when I have finished Addison & Steele, I will have evolved to a kinder and gentler writer. Certainly long-suffering readers have complained that I was too frank and blunt, at times. Very well then, I confess my guilt.

But some of the discrepancy results from much of the internet readership confusing a blog with the personal trivia of Facebook or the low-key chit-chat of a television studio. They seek smooth, inoffensive distraction and escapism. But a writer is not supposed to have the amiable, cheery personality of a chubby TV weatherman. Blogs should emulate -- in an abbreviated form -- the best of what the world of books has to offer.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reviving the Periodical Essay

Awhile back I asked for suggestions from readers in finding 'eclectic' blogs, and was pleased to receive some. With hindsight I should have asked for 'modern periodical essays'. Periodical essays were popular in the 1700's. (The link to Quotidiana in the right hand margin contains personal essays.) A couple of the best known series were those of Addison & Steele and those by Samuel Johnson, Diderot, etc. The modern internet blogosphere should be rife with periodical essays. It is an enormous opportunity that is being missed.

Let's characterize a periodical essay as the short work of an observer and thinker who is 'grazing on the open range' of personal experience and human history. Typically the periodical essay begins with an observation that seemed odd enough to stimulate curiosity. The train of thought then broadens to the general, with some historical perspective.

I am reading the first series by Addison & Steele, "The Tatler", written about 1710 AD. (And 'CE' be damned.) Although the English novel didn't quite exist then, newspapers did, and the "The Tatler" offered a popular alternative to newspapers.  A modern reader, reading Addison & Steele for the first time, will be surprised to find the prose style remarkably modern. In fact, they helped to create the modern prose style.  A generation later, Benjamin Franklin imitated the style of Addison & Steele in his program of self-education.

Why are these essays so appealing? Partially it is their brevity. It is so salubrious to read for a few minutes, as a break from more physical activity; and the shortness of the time in the chair prevents the reader from becoming sullen.

Secondly, starting the essay from personal experiences or observations keeps the essay's feet on the ground. It lends honesty and authenticity to the train of thought, rather than the author regurgitating something read in another book. It also avoids the endless circle of wordplay by philosophers or meta-physicians.

Let's look at an example from The Tatler, vol 3 (from Gutenberg). The essays frequently grew out of conversations  in coffee houses or chocolate shops. A rather argumentative fellow named 'Minucio' was carrying on once:
But Minucio replied with great vehemence, and seemed so much to have the better of the dispute, that this adversary quitted the field...

I sat till I saw the table almost all vanished, where, for want of discourse, Minucio asked me, how I did? To which I answered, "Very well." "That's very much," said he; "I assure you, you look paler than ordinary." "Nay," thought I, "if he won't allow me to know whether I am well or not, there is no staying for me neither." 

Upon which I took my leave, pondering as I went home at this strange poverty of imagination, which makes men run into the fault of giving contradiction. They want in their minds entertainment for themselves or their company, and therefore build all they speak upon what is started by others; and since they cannot improve that foundation, they strive to destroy it.
Sigh. If only an essayist have given me some advice, when I was young, about the vicious habit of contradiction. And if only I had taken it! The essays are full of sound advice about the conduct of life, but not the aphorisms or issues that you might pickup in the Bible or ancient philosophy. In theory, a novelist could do an even better job at treating the conduct of life because they might be more likely to persuade the reader, since the reader is emotionally involved with the characters of the novel. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Calming the Beast in the Cabin

I'm weakening. I hate camping underneath a thunderstorm. But the mud will dry up tomorrow.

There must be readers who are sick of my praise for wet snow and cold mud in May in the American Southwest. They are probably thinking, "Put up or shut up. Move to Puget Sound if you think wetness is so great."

My sermons are an echo of the ones from William James, presented in the page-tab at the top of your screen, Summiting: Ideals and Suffering. In trying to benefit from suffering, the key word is 'non-routine.' Over the long run, suffering loses its charm. In order to be stimulated, you must somehow idealize it, and that is hard to do to something routine. The weather the Southwest is having right now is definitely non-routine.

I'm not just opining and theorizing. My bouts with cabin fever have done me some good, and hopefully for the long term.

I was forced to do things that are easy to neglect: a book that was supposed to be re-read, but somehow wasn't; cleaning and organizing; off-line organizing on the computer; doing push-ups on the muddy trailer floor; cooking time-consuming foods such as rice and beans; crawling under the sleeping bag and napping at odd times, not because I was tired, but because I craved warmth.

It isn't good enough to just grit the teeth and try to force yourself to do these things. It is better to exercise the imagination on them, and visualize them as being valuable. At the very least I had to give them the benefit of the doubt, and judge them less harshly than usual. I had to be content with these half dozen activities instead of a dozen more activities which I should be able to pursue and which should be more exciting.

At first I saw only tangible things and activities. Over time a general principle appeared behind the scenes. Patience. I was developing patience.

Just as a child's imagination tends toward personification, I imagined Impatience as an unruly beast who I was trapped with. It seemed a huge wet dog, young and puppyish, and erratic. This even made it destructive in such a small trailer: scratching at my air mattress, getting excited and peeing on the floor, shaking off all over the bed. 

The beast wasn't malevolent by intent. In fact its flaws were rather common to its breed and age. Neverthless it was necessary for It to calm down.

So it is with the virtue of patience. Impatience always seemed to be a common and petty vice, before, and thus boring and easy to underestimate and neglect.  

But what profound consequences Impatience has in the long term. We are forever scratching an itch, driving to stores, spending money. So much of the money and time of our lives is spent fleeing boredom. We only needed to conquer Impatience. This issue is triply important to early retirees.

The great advantage of cabin fever is that we can no longer shrug off Impatience.  We are faced with a crisis, and the villain becomes apparent.

This may be an example of what Malcolm Muggeridge was writing about in A Third Testament. In his chapter on Dostoevsky, he writes:
Dostoevsky found himself in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress where so many revolutionaries – Bakunin, for instance – were at one time or another incarcerated. For Dostoevsky it was the true beginning of his inner life, and of the illumination out of which his great works were to come. 

Prisons, let it be said, have fostered far more art and mystical insight than any Arts Council, Ministry of Culture or other such effort in the way of governmental encouragement. In the Peter and Paul Fortress he was willy-nilly introduced to the theme of punishment, which he was suffering, and crime, to which a long, elaborate examination sought to relate it. The punishment was tangible, the crime more elusive...

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Brave Little Beast

A couple birds carried-on a noisy aerial dogfight over my trailer. It's not unusual for a couple small birds to get after a large raptor, but here a single small bird held forth, valiantly. The fight went on for half an hour. My dog was annoyed the entire time.

But isn't it amazing what inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras can do these days! Those two birds were up there, say, 300 feet. I took the optical zoom way out there, so far that it was hard to keep them in the frame. And yet the box turned green -- focus was achieved. And even after digital zoom was added, the photo is still pretty clear:

I am now reading Jack London's "The Sea Wolf," so my mind takes to "wind sports". I wonder if London ever wrote a couple paragraphs on something like what is in this photo, and what meaning he read into it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wanted: More "David Lean Style" Novels

It might be fair to describe the David Lean style movies (e.g., Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago) as consisting of a close-up drama of the main characters, usually during wars or revolutions, and with a huge landscape in the background. (Doctor Zhivago was the only one in the list that was pulled down by love triangles, adultery, and all the rest of that puke. And that wasn't really Lean's fault.)

To be a happier novel-reader I need to find books that remind me of Lean's movies. By luck I did. Tolstoy's "Hadji Murat" was written late in Tolstoy's life. The short novel took place in the same setting where young Tolstoy served in the Czar's army, the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Reading this short novel will probably make you feel like the ideal traveler, who learns about radically different ways of life, and not just silly scenery tourism. Of course there is plenty of scenery in the neighborhood, including an 18,000 ft high mountain! The main character, Hadji Murat, was a warrior in one of the Muslim tribes there.

The Caucasus was the southern boundary of czarist Russia, and what a boundary it was, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally! Muslims versus Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Turkic versus Indo-European languages. The Silk Route went through there. It was the eastern edge of the ancient Greco-Roman world: the legendary Jason and the Argonaut looked for the Golden Fleece there. It was Josef Stalin's home country.

The Black Sea isn't the Russian equivalent of North America's Great Lakes. Salty water flows into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean along the bottom, while freshwater flows out to the Mediterranean along the top. The deepest spot in the Black Sea is over 7000 feet, compared to about 1000 feet in Lake Superior.

My goodness, what a map nerd I am! It's time to find some bicycle touring blogs that roamed the Caucasus.

Let's say you are a "Caucasian." Hasn't it always seemed strange to be affiliated with a place-name that you could barely point to on a map? The Indo-Europeans of the Caucasus became important to the world because that is probably where the horse was domesticated. Soon after, they learned to put a chariot behind a team of two horses; one guy managed the horses, while the second guy blasted away with a bow and arrow. They even learned to make lighter, spoked wheels.

What an important region the Eurasian steppe (grasslands) used to be! They connected eastern Europe with China. All of the ancient civilizations, except maybe the Egyptian, were invaded and conquered by horse and chariot warriers. It was the classic battle of Cain versus Abel. 

Anyway, this is the proper backdrop for an interesting short novel. It is so much better than the parlour and ballroom combat of 19th Century novels written for lady novel readers, or the modern novels, dominated by the perverse proclivities of New York City.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Appreciate a Novel by a Woman

I am here today to tell you that all things are possible in this old world of ours: I have just enjoyed a novel by a woman novelist: Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."  My goodness, one of the Bronte sisters, just the sort of book a school marm would have approved of, and thus would have been hated by most (male) youths. A freakish event like this must be explained somehow.

Actually the idea of reading this book came from my enjoyment of movie music scores. Dario Marianelli seems to have carved out a niche for himself in writing piano-intensive scores for movie renditions of Jane Austen or Bronte novels, such as the recent Jane Eyre movie. It certainly makes sense for the piano to be the main instrument here.  

In explaining why this book was enjoyable, let's start with what it doesn't have. (Recall the Latin poet, Horace, and his "Fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue.") This novel is not built around a love triangle. Surely we can agree that there are too many love triangles in the world of literature.

Nor does "Jane Eyre" suffer from the Glorification-of-the-Fool Syndrome. There is an insidious idea that floats around in literature. It shows up worst in a movie like "Forrest Gump." This idea glorifies the retarded or simple, the senile, the diseased, or the demented. Modern novelists, at least, think they are on the forefront of research to explore the depths of human depravity. Too often intelligence is linked with diabolical characters, e.g., Hannibal the Cannibal. The idea seems to be totally missing from literature that a character can be intelligent, at least half-wise, kind, and interesting.

But the main characters in "Jane Eyre" are admirable, yet imperfect. Jane is intelligent, tough, cautious, forward-thinking. She doesn't act rashly based on pure emotion. And yet there is a woman's heart underneath her tough skin. It is how I remember and imagine my ancestral females.

 I want to admire women. If I can't succeed with modern woman, then at least women in the past can be admired. Remember that in our depraved culture, 90% of advertising has been aimed at women. It is only to be expected that their minds and characters have collapsed in modern times.

It was just dumb luck that this enjoyable experience of reading "Jane Eyre" coincided with a woman showing up in my roadie bicycle club. It has been years since I have ridden with a woman. But she is fast and dependable on her bike. Despite being a married woman who is no spring chicken, her voice sounds almost girlish. As I ride along in single file, and hear that pleasant girlish voice, it is impossible not to inwardly smile.

Jane Eyre does not suffer from the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome. Nor is Jane beautiful, although some men find her attractive enough. It is true that the heroine of a movie is usually visually stunning. That seems to be necessary for commercial success, and after all, movies are meant to be eye candy, not mind candy. 

But there is something about a beautiful heroine in a book that makes the novelist look like a hack, writing for money. I don't really want that kind of trite entertainment. A novel should offer some enlightenment to a reader, and not just popcorn-munching entertainment. How can it do that without moral integrity?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blogs Can Be Improved by Blending with Books

The history of the English language is a subject that has interested me from time to time. It is rare for an Indo-European language to lack most inflections (endings on verbs and nouns), to make modular use of helper or auxiliary verbs ('If she had gone to town yesterday...'), and to lack gender.  With its history of borrowing from other languages and innovating itself -- without some centralized bureaucracy full of language police as in the French model -- it should be capable of much more.

For instance, when is somebody going to invent, and the rest of society cleave unto, a phrase or word that adequately describes 'drowning in trivia.' Trifles, distraction, minutiae, soul-sucking drivel, and other words are pretty good. But we need something better to express the debasement of human dignity and the utter destruction of the human soul that the internet now offers.

Why do smartphones and drivel-blogs take up so much of our time compared to reading classic books? I was just sitting here reading a classic novel, Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities." I am moderately interested in the book. Why then do I feel this magnetic attraction to switch over to the Trivia online? What is the nature of this addiction? Is it just that the internet demands only a short attention span from its readers? It won't be long before the readers can stop reading entirely by nervously flitting from 2-minute-long video snippet to snippet.

In the past I have tried to explain the weaknesses of books:
  • They are non-interactive. Information flows in only one direction.
  • Books are too thick. Reading them is slow and tedious. 
  • Books suffer from the Uninterrupted Prose Syndrome. Is it really too expensive or disreputable to include some illustrations?
If I remember correctly, commenters were not overly thrilled with any of this. Very well then, if I can't explain what's wrong with reading books, let me try to explain the addictiveness of the internet. Even before the internet, 
  • The boob toob viewer had been long-accustomed to feeling a constant state of anxiety and boredom, an endless itch that must be scratched by clicking the channel button.
  • People who are young enough to have grown up addicted to video games, lived in constant "twitch mode", requiring diddling the joystick and hitting some button or key to blast some opponent.
  • Today people must click boxes on their smartphone screen every few seconds, to refresh the screen with the next ad or piece of trivial information. Otherwise they agonize in a state of nervousness and angst.

What I feel is a mild example of the above. What if the reader of a classic book picked off insightful points that the author glided over too quickly, and then illustrated the point with some experience in his life or some person he once knew?

Typing is a nice outlet for nervous fingers. The reader could type out his little vignette -- maybe just a paragraph or two. Anyone could do that, and it would be constructive. Anything is better than small talk about the weather, Facebook photos of somebody's cat, or postcards.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Success at Reading and Writing Fiction

My "mighty" success at reading a novel started when I was rereading Boswell's "Life of Johnson" for the umpteenth time. Why do I keep rereading this book? Is it because it is a rare example of a book that brings philosophy down from the clouds? It also makes philosophy brief enough for human conversation.

At any rate Boswell mentioned that Samuel Johnson loved Henry Fielding's "Amelia." This is surprising since Johnson stubbornly held to a low opinion of Fielding's work. Nothing quite disposes us to accept advice from somebody else like seeing them make an exception to a general position of theirs.

And so I read and enjoyed "Amelia."  It resembled "Tom Jones" actually: the surprises were a bit outlandish, and it had too much lovey-dovey. So then, why did I enjoy it?

The book is quite a sermon about not blaming "Fortune" for the consequences of our rash behaviour, especially when we are young. It seems odd to use the word 'preach', considering how bawdy and libertine the novel sometimes is. But it does preach indirectly. Perhaps that is the only kind that does anyone any good.

On virtually every page of "Amelia" the author slides in his little zingers of moral philosophy. You could argue that the author makes a mistake in doing so; and that, instead, he should let the readers draw conclusions by themselves. But here I think it worked because his "lessons" are so brief. The reader doesn't have time to get resentful of the author's preaching because the action of the story resumes so quickly.

There are probably other examples of "negative" behavior by an author that actually become positive if brief enough. The same probably applies to what Valium-Capsule-America calls "negative" emotions: suspicions, caution, sarcasm, and others. But there is a huge difference between 1) noting "negatives" enough to take them into a decision, and 2) fixating on them, perhaps with no action or decision in mind, but merely as a bad habit.

Think of the huge advantages that a novelist has over a philosopher or even an essayist. When the essayist hammers away on his point, the readers start to dig in their heels. They think, "I'm so sick of this blowhard and know-it-all."

But the novelist needn't succumb to that weakness. All he must do is get his readers to "suspend disbelief," and consider the characters and situations "real." When that happens, the story appears to do the preaching. The reader has forgotten about the author and his ego. The reader must actively try to educe general lessons from concrete situations, rather than settle for the passive soporific of spoonfed moral lessons.

Recall some advice from Strunk and White's "Style" chapter:

Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author.

...that is, place yourself in the background.
This is why it is wrong for an author to make a promiscuous use of bold and italic letters, exclamation marks (!!!), weird punctuation... lessee, what else... oh yeah, slang, chattiness, vulgarisms, parenthetical remarks, neologisms, foreign phrases, and big words.

Consider what is lost when otherwise excellent authors fail to heed this advice. The Coen brothers are highly regarded as film writers and directors. Count me among their millions of fans. But they could be better. Their characters say things that no person would ever say. Plot twists are too contrived. Weird faces and accents are sometimes fun to see on film, but at other times, they are exxagerated or inaccurate.

Once the audience suspects the scriptwriter is putting Himself before the story, the "suspension of disbelief" is undermined. The audience starts thinking that characters, dialog, and situations are "fake," so nothing really matters anymore. It is so easy to take the audience 'out of the story.' Something as trivial as an "extra" looking at the camera can cause a re-shoot, and rightly so.

Another example of not receding into the background is the novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Despite his enormous reputation he made a lot of mistakes. Some of his characters are transparently autobiographical (but perhaps not so at the time.) Tolstoy obtrudes too many opinions in the story and detracts from the reader's enjoyment. Once again, this disadvantage could be turned into an advantage if the obtrusions were brisk and brief enough.

But I wonder if modern novelists have lost sight of their advantages over philosophers. Perhaps the zeitgeist has decided that injecting moral lessons about living life is too old-fashioned to be intellectually respectable. They want to be "value neutral."  They emphasize quirky, perverted, or mentally-unstable characters, as if madness makes a character more interesting. They probably think it makes their writing look more like the "forefront of research."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why Do Some Enjoy Reading Fiction?

There is no point in trying to hide it: I am quite pleased with myself. I read a novel, and even enjoyed the ordeal, overall.

Still, there were times when I was bored and frustrated. The only thing that helped me through those episodes was visualizing my suffering as "noble and heroic." The half-facetiousness of this lightened my mood. Fortunately the novel would then become more interesting in a couple pages, and I could take a break from my play-acting. 

This gimmick worked all through the novel. Many times, I kept hearing a voice say, "It's a far, far better thing I do than..." But say, where did that come? Wasn't it from some novel I was forced to read in high school, and therefore, probably disliked? Rather ironic, if true.

And yet there are many people who enjoy novels, effortlessly I suppose. What is their secret? Why don't they spill it to people like me? Maybe it will help to consider one category of successful novel-readers at a time.

1. Novel-readers who simply like the physical act of tediously and repetitively rastering their eyeballs over the printed page, while sitting in a chair all day. Maybe they like the cozy atmosphere of sipping on some hot tea, with a cat purring next to them, and some soothing, non-vocal music playing in the background. There are even people who can read when reclining. To some extent, reading a book for them is "chewing gum for the eyes," although that old witticism applies better to television.

2. Novel-readers who are not crazy about the physical act of reading, but who tolerate it because of the:

a) entertainment value of the stories. They must be easily entertained. Ninety-five percent of the shop-worn plots are Love Triangles, adulterous love triangles, unrequited love, revenge, mistaken identity, rags-to-riches, whodunnit, and violence. If the novel is modern, it will also be replete with lurid and sordid bedroom scenes.

b) what they can learn about how human personalities interact with the challenges in their personal lives. Human situations become a mini-sermon to them; a non-academic, concrete illustration of a philosophical principle.

Clearly, #1 and #2a type readers have nothing to teach me. Only #2b type people could. Next time I need to expand on #2b.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Eavesdropping on a Silent Conversation

It seems like many of the experiences, that I want to post about, occur during the food-stop in the middle of a bicycle ride. Why is that? Is it the mood that cycling puts me in? It certainly seems to be true that one's appreciation of a Thing depends more on the Context of the thing, than on the thing itself.

At any rate, it happened again today. A couple of deaf people were having an animated conversation at a table in front of the window of a food stop. I could pretend to watch my unlocked bicycle just outside that window, without it being obvious that I was "eavesdropping" on their conversation in sign language. (I do not "sign.") Through my sunglasses I could watch them out of the corner of my eye.

They had each other's undivided attention. No distractions. Compare the quality of the conversation of these two "handicapped" people to the usual 'barely listening' conversation of non-handicapped people! We struggle with the crappy background music, if nothing else.

How strange that this has never happened before in my fairly long life. It surprised me that they put so much facial and upper body emphasis to their conversation. It seemed more "analog", and less "digital", than I expected.

How many "bytes" of information flowed between them, compared to a regular conversation between "hearing" people? Surely they transmit less in the same time. But I'm really not so sure.

What was the basic quantum of their language: a letter, syllable, word, or metaphor?

After awhile it dawned on me that the special emphasis I imagined to be there might be due to them being a possible couple -- and that they were flirting with each other. Normally a person is sensitive to the slightest clue of that; but it might not apply here because I didn't understand the first thing about their language. But it certainly was a possible substratum in their language. (I hope it was.)

Linguistics has interested me since I went to Mexico a couple times in my RV.  Imagine explaining the different meanings of 'OK', depending on the intonations, to somebody who is learning English.

So off I went, to Wikipedia to learn about sign language. How disappointing the article was! It probably wasn't the author's fault. But when your curiosity is really hot on some topic, it takes the form of questions. Then we read an article about the topic; but the information isn't organized as an Answer to that Question. Perhaps it can't be.

But if it could be, then even a retro-grouch must admit this to be genuine, qualitative progress brought on by the internet, instead of the usual quantitative expansion of garbage-information. If somebody could find a way to write in terms of answering questions of the reader, it would be the greatest conversation of all.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why Read Fiction?

Now that I'm rereading a series of novels, adding up to many thousands of pages, it would certainly be nice if I actually accomplished something. The good news is that I am starting to realize that fiction has something to offer: but strangely enough, it really isn't the "story."

I admit to being a die-hard non-fiction reader. Mostly history. Many years ago, it was philosophy, until I decided that it was mere wordplay. Fiction always seemed like a waste of time. What did the plots of novels really consist of but rags-to-riches, revenge, whodunnit, mistaken identity, improbable reversals of fortune, and -- above all else -- adulterous love triangles? Yawn, especially the latter.

It was a good choice to reread Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin" ("Master and Commander") novels because they are written more to please men than "lady novel readers," who have an insatiable appetite for romantic drivel. (It was they who bought most of the fiction of the 19th Century, was it not?)  O'Brian's novels take place on the high seas -- not in parlors. Or bedrooms.

Therefore I wasn't resenting the overall plot. This advantage was huge, because it allowed me to relax and look past the overall plot. I started paying more attention to the interstices in the overall plot. Vignettes of behavior. Different personalities react differently to uncertainty and risk, loss and disappointment, betrayal, boredom, pain, and all the real challenges of life.

Left in the hands of philosophers and academics, the "stuff of life" becomes sterile wordplay, with no ability to inspire you or change your own behavior. Whenever I find one of these vignettes of behavior to the real challenges of life, I should hit the brakes. A reader can become "velocitized" -- numbed -- like an interstate highway driver. These are opportunities to let the eyeballs rest, and then type or cut-and-paste the juicy paragraph into your blog or journal.

And then put the damned book down. Take the dog out for a walk and think about what you have read. Dream that juicy paragraph up into a little essay, perhaps for your own blog.  See it as a chapter in your own life. Isn't this a better topic to write about than shopping, the weather, or pretty sunsets?

Odd, ain't it? For years I would roll my eyeballs when philistine blockheads would badmouth opera: 'It's sung in EYE-talyan, so Ah cain't unnerstannit!' Or maybe the uncivilized brute would say, 'The plots are just stupid Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-loses-Girl-to-the-Duke' type junk.

All true, but so what? The plots of operas are just flimsy excuses to move on to the next song, which is what counts. Even more, it adds something to your appreciation of music to tie it to a human and emotional context. That can happen in operas, despite the silliness of the overall plot. Why didn't I see the analogy with appreciating fiction -- years ago?