Thursday, January 29, 2015

Just Reading


Lynn and I have been exchanging emails with a great old friend of mine, a member of the legal profession and a judge, about Hemingway’s short story “Indian Camp.” Both Lynn and I consider it one of the great short stories in English.  In one of our exchanges, my friend speculated about how his professional reading, necessarily highly focused and meticulous, affected his reading of Hemingway’s story.

It’s a deep and interesting issue, deserving of serious analysis and attention.  And, it alludes to the even more important question of how we read in general and how we should read.

One of my two Bachelor degrees is in English Literature, granted by a University and the faculty of “the Department of English.”  In fact, the department would have been more accurately named a department of Literary Criticism and Analysis (which dabbled in Linguistics and Creative Writing.)  These days, I find I would much rather have a Bachelor’s degree in Reading.

“Reading?”  Just “Reading?”

Yes.  Consider how many ways there are of reading.  For example, there is the immersive, velocitized reading for recreation, often brought to Science Fiction or Fantasy where a primary goal is to imagine as completely and viscerally as possible a world the author has labored to imagine.  Often, language is meant to be a pure transport mechanism, innocuous and transparent, though not always.  In contrast there is Kingsnorth’s “The Wake” or Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” in which a peculiar, sometimes difficult language is almost a character itself, claiming its own share of the reader’s attention.

But there are so many more ways of reading and ways a text is designed, consciously or unconsciously, to be read.  One can read for rhetorical structure, identifying how rhetorical strategies and structures are employed.  One can read for selection of detail and the consequences of those choices.  One can read with attention to point of view.  One can read for story structure or character arc.  Or one can read in the context of how a work engages with a well-defined audience, it’s effect and meaning for them.  One can read purely for definition, logic and persuasiveness of argument, even fiction can be read this way.

One can read historically, attempting to read in the context of a particular time in the past, bringing to it the insights and limitations one would have had at that time.  It’s no small achievement to do that well.  I’m reminded of Ricky Jay’s masterful demonstration of how a card trick would have been performed four different ways at four different points in history.

Simply, there are an infinite number of ways to approach a text and read it.  How should one read it?  How do you make an intelligent determination?  How many times do you read it?  How do you know you’re executing your reading strategy, perhaps paradigm is a better word, effectively?

That’s what I would expect from a college degree in “Reading.”  Further, I’d argue that it’s never been more important.  Consider the number and diversity of texts you engage with each day, some are even properly hyper-texts and need to be understood in that context.  Unless, everyone becomes more accomplished readers do democratic societies, of which I personally happen to be particularly fond, have a chance of surviving?

Last November I read “Professor Borges:  A Course on Literature” a collection of lectures given by the great literary figure recovered and edited by Martin Hadis et al.  More than anything it was a course in reading and how a great mind read carefully, well and differently.  Reading as others have read, decades or even centuries ago can be surprisingly helpful in making the particular weaknesses, obsessions and biases of the present apparent.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery


There is a book I want to read but it hasn’t been written.  It’s a book which solves an important mystery, or at least provides the likely solution to the mystery embodied in the known life, deeds and works of a man who lived in the 15th century.

Call him Thomas.  He was born in 1416, approximately, near the year of Henry V’s great victory at Agincourt, in Stretton-under-Fosse in Warwickshire.  A minor noble, he was knighted sometime before 1441 (commonly at the age of 21) and in that year served as an Elector in Northamptonshire.   When he was 27 he and one Eustace Barnaby were accused of stealing  £40 from one Hugh Smyth.  (At that time £40 purchased £29,440 worth of goods at 2015 prices, but corresponded to £230,600 in the relative value of labor.)  It wouldn’t have been a minor theft yet it wasn’t prosecuted.

Thomas married Elizabeth Walsh in the same year and together they had a son, Robert and possibly 1-2 other children later.  In 1443 he was elected to Parliament as one of two “Knights of the Shire” for Warwickshire and was appointed to the Royal Commission for the distribution of funds to impoverished Warwickshire towns.  That trust could suggest the earlier accusation was frivolous and without merit.  In 1449, at the age of 33, he was elected Member of Parliament for the Duke of Buckingham’s safe seat of Great Bedwyn.

In 1451, when Thomas was about 35 years old, his life changed.  He was accused, along with 26 others, of trying to murder the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful Lancastrian magnates in the land.  Thomas probably owed allegiance to the Earl of Warwick, a powerful Yorkist supporter.  The accusation was never proved.  Later in the same year he was accused of extortion twice then of breaking into the home of Hugh Smyth of Monkskirby, stealing £40 and raping Smyth’s wife and attacking her in Coventry 8 weeks later.  (Rape at that time could mean abduction or consensual sex with a married woman.)  His arrest was ordered but nothing was done.  In the following months Thomas was accused of over 100 serious crimes, mostly violent robberies.

He was finally brought to trial in August of that year in Nuneaton, the heartland of Buckingham’s power and imprisoned in infamous Marshalsea Prison in Southwark in spite of pleas to be tried by a new jury from Warwickshire.  Over the next several years he escaped was imprisoned again, escaped, was imprisoned until he was released on £200 bail (worth £147,000 of goods at 2015 prices) gathered by Warwickshire magnates.

From 1460 until 1470 he was imprisoned at Newgate for further alleged crimes, including joining with the Earl of Warwick in a plot to assassinate the Yorkist King, Edward IV.  He was explicitly excluded from two of Edward IV’s general pardons afterwards but was finally released during the short period when the Earl of Warwick returned Henry VI to the throne.  He died in 1471, about the age of 55.

While Thomas was in Newgate he had access to the library of the Greyfriars Monastery adjacent to the prison, one of the finest libraries in western Europe at the time.  And he wrote a book, arguably the greatest achievement of prose literature in the 15th century, “Le Morte d’Arthur.”

Here is just one quote from Sir Thomas Malory’s book,  (there are many others that would have served just as well),

“Wherefore, as me seemeth, all gentlemen that beareth old arms ought of right to honour Sir Tristam for the goodly terms that gentlemen have and use, and shall do unto the day of doom, that thereby in a manner all men of worship may dissever a gentleman from a yeoman, and a yeoman from a villain.  For he that gentle is will draw him to gentle thatches (virtues) and to follow the noble customs of gentlemen.”

There are several obvious mysteries.  First, what happened in 1451 that caused a young knight with family, income and good prospects to turn into an apparently notorious outlaw?  If he was such an outlaw, why did the magnates of Warwickshire pay such a great sum for his bail?  Finally, most importantly, why is it that someone who was accused of such crimes wrote a book so intimately concerned with the issue of knightly morality?  Was he a redeemed sinner, a hypocrite, a Robin Hood, a rare honest man caught in an age in which everything, including the justice system was freely and cruelly manipulated by partisan politics (as the Paston letters indicate)?

I expect reasonable cases can be made for most, if not all, of the above.  As of late the study of Sir Thomas Malory’s life has become a bit of back water in spite of his importance to English letters.

Ian Mortimer has written a unique, thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening historical work:  “1415:  Henry V’s Year of Glory.”  The book chronicles everything that occurred on every day in 1415 in the world as far as Henry could have known it.  What makes the book so extraordinary is how a nuanced, complex and deep characterization of Henry Vth emerges from meticulous examination of that detail.

It seems to me that the life of Sir Thomas Malory, so important to understanding one of the seminal works of English literature and the English literary imagination might yield to a similar approach, particularly a close  examination of 1451 and the actions of the Duke of Buckingham, the Duke of York, the Earl of Warwick and Queen Margaret as well as those more immediate to Malory himself. It's easily worthy of Sherlock Holmes, don't you think?

Episode 2 is here.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Point of Illustration

This week the Guardian reported that a new illustrated version of Rowling’s Harry Potter books will be published this autumn.  It was welcome news:  I wish more stories and novels, particularly first editions were illustrated.  It also seems to me there never was a time when audiences were more receptive to it, unless it was the late 19th century.

That hasn’t always been the case.   I remember when serious, literary fiction, whatever that is, was almost never illustrated.  John Gardner, the author of Grendel, commissioned illustrations for his book of stories and the idea had become sufficiently novel to draw media attention to his book for that reason alone.

Of course that set me to remembering lazy summer afternoons looking through the illustrated books in my grandmother’s little library when I was just learning to read.  One was “The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, A Tale of Viking Days” illustrated by Troy and Margaret West Kinney.  The bright images seemed a little stiff even to my four year-old eyes but they caught my imagination.  And a few years later I struggled through the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Then there was an immense edition of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” illustrated by Gustave DorĂ©.  I always was particularly fond of his image of Satan accompanying his great self-revelatory lines,

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

As a side note, notice that Milton uses the mathematical notion of recursion to define hell, which is wicked cool.  I’ve always wondered if this was the first appearance of the concept in science or literature.  And, I wonder if it’s possible to create a credible vision of heaven or hell without it.  I also still ponder why biblical villains always get to wear the best looking armor?

Pride of place for me was “A Boy’s King Arthur,” illustrated by the great N. C. Wyeth.  When we were living in Massachusetts, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland Maine held a large exhibition of N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations and paintings and I recall the long drive, lunch and the museum that autumn with particular fondness.  Because of the vast memories it evoked and the immediacy of seeing the original art first hand I felt I was walking abroad “in a shower of all my days,” to use Dylan Thomas’ great birthday words.  My grandmother had several  editions of Mallory, one in particular that preserved the original late medieval spellings.  It had an illustration of the wounded and lifeless Arthur in bloody mail and white surcoat in the arms of a summery-tressed Guinevere that I loved and have never been able to find again.

Now, so many years later, I’ve decided those illustrations did me good service.  They educated my imagination, implicitly encouraging invention, elaboration and careful attention to detail.  Even now I believe that imagination works a little like a muscle and can be strengthened by exercise and practice, which is what great illustrations can help us to do.  It’s a “high” art if there ever was one.

Much, much later I came across Bauer’s illustrations of “Our Fathers’ Godsaga” by Viktor Rydberg and they were so good I imagined I’d seen them in my grandmother’s library, although I know I didn’t.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Signal Exhibition

The signal events in our lives, a birth, a death, an accomplishment, moving to a new city or another part of the world, meeting someone new or an old friend again for the first time in years, sometimes have ironic consequences.  For example, upon the death of my uncle some years ago now, I found myself reading letters and an essay I’d never known existed.  The letters were written when he was a pilot in England during World War II.  The essay was a description of taking-off for a night mission.  He was twenty.  The writing was extraordinary.  It was painfully bittersweet unforeseeable gift during a period of terrible loss.

More recently, I had the great good fortune to reconnect with an old friend and his wife as a result of his efforts.  She’s an artist; she creates Bromoil images, an elaborate and delicate photographic process which transforms photographs, revealing the quiet, sometimes extraordinary beauty that can hide in the mid-range light.

Bromoils can be as witty as an Edward Gorey cartoon, or revelatory in spite of an apparent simplicity of composition.  Sometimes looking at a Bromoil is exactly like that moment in a great mystery novel when a seemingly innocuous clue transforms your view of the characters and provides the essential information to resolve the mystery itself.

They can affect you like those unexpected consequences of your life’s signal moments.
Our friend, Elise Lajeunesse, is exhibiting her work at the Finch Lane Gallery, 54 Finch Lane in Reservoir Park beginning this Friday, January 16.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A New Paper by Stephen Lekson and Paris the week of January 7, 2015


As I’ve alluded earlier I’m working on a large project which involves, in part, the ancient south western US.  As part of that endeavor I’ve just read a new paper by the noted southwestern archaeologist, Stephen Lekson.  The paper’s perspective is large and archaeological but implicitly poses several questions which are pertinent to this week’s tragic events in Paris.

The archaeological record tells us that humans have been around in their current form for 200,000 years.  During almost all of that time we were hunter-gathers; the agricultural revolution is extremely recent.  It began 10,000 years ago but has only been in consistent, wide practice for 3-5 thousand years.  Yet we know that with rare exceptions,  our physiology, including our brains, evolve very slowly.  Hence, we have the same brains as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and because of the vast amount of time we pursued that way of life it’s probable that our brains are optimized for it.

For the most part, hunter-gatherers appear to live and work in 2 social structures concurrently, “bands” of around 25 and  “tribes” of 500-1,000.  With the agricultural revolution came cities, technology and now the high population densities and rapid change that characterizes contemporary life.  What’s a poor guy with a brain equipped to deal with a band of 25 and a tribe of 1,000 to do?

Innovate.  We’ve applied precedence and hierarchy to social organization, for example.  But there are many others.  Indeed, it’s interesting to look at everything, from modern political systems, to religious organizations, to digital technology and ask how they facilitate (and enable) adaptation to that larger and more complex world.

Consider, how many “bands” and “tribes” you belong to, how they interact, why you’re a member of them.  Which ones are successful?  Which ones are in conflict?  How do we as individuals manage them, practically, philosophically, morally?  How do they work?  Can they work better?

Perhaps our institutions (there’s a difficult, at least abstract, concept for a hunter-gatherer brain) could benefit from looking at the problems they face daily, in that context.

John Gardner, the novelist who wrote “Grendel,” retells a myth about the God Odin.  Odin finds himself exhausted and overwhelmed by the work of keeping the dragons and giants in check, arbitrating humanity’s nitty, sometimes tragic problems, in general keeping chaos and entropy at bay and the universe in balance.  He  visits Loki, the god of fire and other things, and tell him his problem.
“I know the answer,” Loki says, tentatively.
“What is it?”
“The answer is of such great value, is so important and so difficult it merits a great price.”
“What is it?”
“I will give you the answer in exchange for one of your eyes.”
It is a terrible price but Odin so loves creation, that he suffers the terrible pain and partial loss of vision.  He removes one of his own eyes and gives it to the trickster god.  “Now, tell me, what is the answer,” he demands.
“Keep both eyes open.”

Steven Lekson’s paper is entitled “Cross Cultural Perspectives on the Community” and is published and available on