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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Twenty-Three

The twenty-third book we read (along with the other Slaves of Golconda) was The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford.

This book reminded us of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the way it shifts back and forth in time to tell the story. At several points in the book the narrator Mr. Dowell remarks that he has brought his story up to a point that he has already referenced. In the introduction, Mark Schorer likens the style to a hall of mirrors. The beginning of Part Four makes this explicit:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find his path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression.
We don't quite know what to make of this book. It was certainly not as smashing as we had expected. The story concerns two conventional, mostly sterile, marriages, and an affair between one of the women and the other man. Dowell does not find out his wife has been involved with his friend until after she dies. Through it all Dowell takes pains to assure his silent listener that the other man, Mr. Ashburnham, is a fine gentleman, a good soldier. Mrs. Dowell, however, is only one in a line of women with whom Ashburnham dallies.

The four major characters all seem as if they are wandering without moral compass. All that seems to matter is the pretence of happiness. Perhaps today, with the rampant popularity of divorce, we look back at such marriages differently. In order to find Ashburnham "the model of humanity," Dowell must have suspended certain standards. In spite of everything, he says,
It is impossible for me to think of Edward Ashburnham as anything but straight, upright, and honourable.
Yet we must take Dowell's word for it, because he never describes any of the innumerable wonderful deeds Ashburnham performs.

Dowell idolizes Ashburnham, wants to be like him, and indeed, he even comes to mimic Ashburnham's desire for a young lady. Perhaps he harbors a secret love for Ashburnham. His unwavering esteem for Ashburnham makes his judgement suspect. And he certainly relates many details about his wife's affair for having been oblivious to it until her death. These things make him seem an unreliable narrator. This begs the question: What is the point of an unreliable narrator? Without the balance of another point-of-view, how is the reader to understand the degree of the narrator's delusions? Or the reason?

Mr. Ford thought this his best work. We have not read anything else by him, so we cannot offer any comparison. This book is certainly well-written, with correct grammar and sentence structure and punctuation. This book also presents us with another narrator who feels nothing, and so the reader feels nothing as well.

Since the book began at the time of the ending, the ending seemed to come all at once. The characters lived on, but there was simply no more story to tell. All the change and lessons learned had come along the way, and all that remained was anticlimax. We have a decided preference for stories that end dramatically, with a conclusion that we suddenly realise has been pointed to from the very beginning. Though this novel is subtitled "A Tale of Passion," it could be better described as reserved. And though the narrator calls it the saddest story he has ever heard, there is more consolation than sadness.

...cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Book Twenty-Two

The twenty-second book we read this year was The World According to Garp, by John Irving, for the Literary Salon at the bookshop. Mr. Irving had published three previous novels, and this was the one that made him a best-selling author. It was first published in select parts, and then complete, between 1976 and 1979. We were first made aware of it some summers later by an enticing young neighbor, and we were enticed into reading it. This is one of those books that is good enough to read again, whether enticed a second time or not.

The story begins with Garp's mother, who will continue to play a major role in the plot. One of our old literature professors allowed her class to choose a modern book to read, and this was the book chosen. However, after reading the first chapter, she disallowed it. Why? We can only speculate that she took offense to Mr. Irving's serious but humorous treatment of sexuality and women's rights. Perhaps the character didn't espouse the professor's particular brand of feminism. It was her loss, and to her discredit: who can teach literature that refuses to read certain, well, literature?

The book starts with a jolt and carries that intensely serious humor right through to the finish. We follow the entire life of Garp, from conception to after death, from an omniscient viewpoint that allows Mr. Irving to flash-back as well as flash-forward to present his protagonist in full. Everything makes sense, and there is nothing that is not somehow connected to something else in the novel. Garp is a fiction writer, so we are also privy to many of his autobiographical comments. The close of the first scene, which introduces his mother, establishes the manner of citation which will punctuate the book:
"My mother," Garp wrote, "was a lone wolf."
We get to read Garp's first novella in its entirety, from which some of the ideas Mr. Irving will use in his next book, The Hotel New Hampshire. A good example of the omniscient style concerns this story:
Helen would later say that it is in the conclusion of "The Pension Grillparzer" that
we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like.
In this way the storyline follows a thematic thread rather than a chronological one. This facilitates the flash-forward technique, as when we are shown a rejection letter Garp receives from a publisher, after which:
Almost fifteen years later, when Garp published his third novel, that same editor at Tinch's favorite magazine would write Garp a letter. The letter would be very flattering to Garp, and to his work, and it would ask Garp to submit anything new he might have written to Tinch's favorite magazine. But T.S. Garp had a tenacious memory and the indignation of a badger. He found the old rejection note that had called his Grillparzer story "only mildly interesting"; the note was crusty with coffee stains and had been folded so many times that it was torn at the creases, but Garp enclosed it with a letter to the editor at Tinch's favorite magazine. Garp's letter said:
I am only mildly interested in your magazine, and I am still doing nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for asking me, though.
Garp responds with exactly the same wording as in his rejection letter, and Mr. Irving wins the appreciation of every writer who has ever received a rejection letter.

We also get a synopsis of Garp's second novel, and see some of the correspondence between Garp and his editor, as well as Garp and his readers. Then later we get to read the first chapter of his third novel, which is followed immediately by:
"What do you mean, 'This is Chapter One'?" Garp's editor, John Wolf, wrote him. "How can there be any more of this? There is entirely too much as it stands! How can you possibly go on?"
The book is characterized by the editor as an X-rated soap opera, with the hope that the visceral reality of the language and the intensity of the characters justifies it. And, of course, this is the book that makes Garp a best-selling author. One of those intense characters is a husband and father who is overprotective of his family, and especially his children, just as Garp is. Garp makes a practise of chasing down drivers who speed through his neighborhood and then asking them, if they must speed, to do it somewhere else. It was this that made a young man realise that breaking the speed limit in anyone's neighborhood is not only against the law, it is also disrespectful to the people who live there. Along with his joy for living, it is this overprotectiveness that goes the furthest in making Garp a sympathetic character.

Mr. Irving's plot borders on being over the top, yet, much like Garp's third novel, it is redeemed by his style and characterisation. The World According to Garp is at once absurd and brutally real. There is a film adaptation of the novel which, having seen it, makes difficult reading the book without imagining Robin Williams. All the major events in the novel stuck with us from that first reading, though they seemed somehow bigger. The novel is sizeable, at 609 pages in paperback, yet the incidents pass quickly. And though they pass quickly, they are never meaningless or forgotten, for they accumulate until they reach a critical mass. And the point, though not the details, of the climax has already been alluded to and foreshadowed, so what happens may be a surprise, but we are not surprised that something happens. But this novel is not about building up to a climax, it is about creating an entire world, and showing that world through the eyes of one character, and forming an incredible fiction which makes one close the book and sigh, and marvel at such a life as Garp's.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book Twenty-One

The twenty-first book we have read this year is Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, Culture, by James Burke.

We were first introduced to Mr. Burke in 1979 on his television documentary Connections. In each episode of the show, the scientific historian began with a modern object and then reached back in time to show how it came to be: one discovery would lead to a new invention that would provoke a theory that would inspire an experiment that would produce an unforeseen byproduct that would become the essential ingredient for the modern object. An amazing journey.

Circles offers a slight variation on this formula. The dust jacket says each essay follows
a chain of consequential events that ends precisely where it began.
We find this statement to be somewhat misleading, because the events are rarely consequential, one resulting from another. Rather the essays follow the connections that take place in Mr. Burke's knowledgeable mind. A good example of this is the connection between an ancient Indian language and identification of the elements: Baron Jon Jacob Berzelius, who established modern chemical symbology, was a "fan" of Karl Gauss, whose method of least squares could accurately predict a planetary orbit, and who had been "affected" by the German enthusiasm for Sanskrit. Another example is the path that leads from Copernicus' De Revolutionibus to Andreas Vesalius' On the Structure of the Body: the editor of Copernicus' book was also the editor of a book by Girolamo Cardano who once cast Vesalius' horoscope. The underlying scheme seems more like "six degrees of separation" than "one thing leads to another."

At times Mr. Burke does shows us how one breakthrough or scientific advance results only from so many previous discoveries: Karl Landsteiner discovered the four blood groups in 1909; in the same year Alexis Carrel developed a new suturing technique; a few years later Charles Lindburgh developed a perfusion pump for Carrel's use in maintaining a body's circulation during a heart operation--all of which helped make possible, and without any one would make impossible, advanced modern surgery. Mr. Burke also makes the point again and again that the first person reputed to have discovered or invented something was usually not, that it had been previously done and forgotten, or the idea was appropriated. The best example of this: Einstein's theory of relativity followed Ernst Mach's, then known as Positivism. And
Mach got Positivism from Comte who got it from St. Simon who got it from Condillac who got it from Locke, who....
The book is bursting with interesting facts in nearly every sentence, among them: Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" to the tune of Londoner John Smith's song "Anacreon in Heaven;" weather forecasting was generally unscientific and based on myth and magic until French emperor Napoleon III called for the establishment of forecasting services in 1854 (though it sometimes seems forecasts are still no more accurate); in 1946 John Mauchly used vacuum valves to automate calculations in a machine called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator), the world's first electronic computer; there are now eighteen holes on a golf course because in the 1850s the sport became so popular that Royal St. Andrew's split their fairways lengthwise to allow simultaneous play in both directions.

Mr. Burke's style is full of humor and wordplay, making the reading lively. Each essay is only a few pages in length, so the accumulation of facts never becomes tedious. Many times, as in the case of Robert Owen, a person or discovery shows up in several different essays. Of another such person, author Prosper Merimee, Mr. Burke says,
you can't cross the French nineteenth century without bumping into him, since he made it his business to know everybody who was anybody.
In this way this book is similar to The Knowledge Web, in which Mr. Burke created a sort of hypertext in print, so that every reference of a person or subject points to the others, allowing the reader to follow his own path through the book.

In his 1985 book The Day the Universe Changed, Mr. Burke presents the theory that when man's views of reality are changed by knowledge, reality itself changes.
Since the structure of reality changes over time, science can only answer contemporary questions about a reality defined in contemporary terms and investigated with contemporary tools. ... There is no metaphysical, super-ordinary, final, absolute reality. There is no special direction to events. The universe is what we say it is.
He suggests such a relativist view
might well use the new electronic data systems to provide a structure unlike any which has gone before.
Mr. Burke closed his book with this prophetic sentence:
It is time that knowledge became more accessible to those to whom it properly belongs.
At the time of his writing, the only TCP/IP network was little more than a university network. The internet did not offer a truly public gateway until 1991. And today, the James Burke Institute for Innovation in Education makes use of this new structure to map the landscape of historical and scientific knowledge. The Institute's Knowledge Web provides an online portal for the exploration of information that allows for an almost infinite number of paths among people, places, things, and events.

Circles and his other books are not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Folly in Don Quixote

We just finished reading the Praise of Folly by Erasmus. We chose the book because the author was quoted from it in Carlos Fuentes' introduction to our edition of Don Quixote:
The reality of things depends solely on opinion. Everything in life is so diverse, so opposed, so obscure, that we cannot be assured of any truth.
The first sentence of the quote is what intrigued us, because we have spent a good deal of time exploring the dichotomies between reality and fantasy, or truth and fiction. And it turns out that much of what Erasmus has to say about Folly speaks directly to Don Quixote.
To start with, everyone accepts the truth of the well-known saying "Where fact is lacking, fiction is best", and so children are properly taught from the start the line "To play the fool in season is the height of wisdom". You can see now for yourselves what a great blessing Folly is....
We have read the first four chapters of the classic Tobias Smollett translation. We must ask ourselves, Is Don Quixote truly mad?
So eager and intangled was our Hidalgo in this kind of history, that he would often read from morning to night, and from night to morning again, without interruption; till at last, the moisture of his brain being quite exhausted with indefatigable watching and study, he fairly lost his wits: all that he had read of quarrels, enchantments, battles, challenges, wounds, tortures, amorous complaints, and other improbable conceits, took full possession of his fancy; and he believed all those romantic exploits so implicitly, that in his opinion, the holy scripture was not more true.
Granting the assumption that the holy scripture is true, we see Don Quixote interpreting his world precisely as Erasmus described. Early on there is a perfect example of how this works: Don Quixote approaches an inn, which he fancies a castle, expecting his arrival to be announced by a trumpet. Just then a local swine-herd
chanced to blow his horn, in order to collect his scattered subjects: immediately the knight's expectation was fulfilled, and concluding that now the dwarf had given the signal of his approach, he rode towards the inn with infinite satisfaction.
Wonderful! Pure folly, which Erasmus tells us is the key to happiness. How much brighter would be the life of Aldonza Lorenco if she imagined herself, as does Don Quixote, the princess Dulcinea del Toboso? Who is mad, those who fail to find beauty at every turn, or the man who adorns himself and his concerns with music, romance, and expression? Folly is Don Quixote's salvation. Indeed, when we imagine things to be what we want them to be, we can live with nothing less than infinite satisfaction.

Join in the reading and discussion of Don Quixote at Tilting at Windmills.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Book Twenty

The twentieth book we have read this year is Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, by Philip Steadman. Taking The Music Lesson as the foundation of his theory, Mr. Steadman presents a convincing argument that the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer employed a camera obscura in his work.

Almost all Vermeer has left to explain his style and himself are the paintings. This book goes a long way to logically filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the painter. The tiled floors Vermeer rendered in many of his scenes provided Mr. Steadman with a guide to physically reconstruct eleven paintings. In six of these eleven, when a camera obscura is placed at the point of view, the image produced is the exact same size as the actual painting.

A contemporary of Vermeer noted in his diary that "the most extraordinary and curious aspect" of Vermeer's works was the perspective. It is this mathematically precise perspective that causes our modern eye to find in Vermeer's paintings such a likeness to photography. That many areas of Vermeer's paintings appear to the eye as if out of focus also points to the use of the camera obscura. The reconstructions show remarkably similar effects.

Mr. Steadman tries to discover where Vermeer's room might have been, who might have taught the painter about optics, and the history of the camera obscura. He also addresses the possibilities of other methods for such precise painting, as well as those theories which argue against the use of the camera obscura. The book is full of diagrams, photographic reproductions of some paintings, as well as the paintings themselves. The mathematical results of his research are gathered in charts at the end of the book.

The Music Lesson is unique in that Vermeer revealed his working method, if not himself, in the painting. Above the head of the woman is a mirror which shows us the reflection of the painter's stool, easel, and the bottom of the wall to Vermeer's back. The arrangement of stool and easel is just as the artist in The Art of Painting has arranged his. From the appearance of the rear wall, Mr. Steadman is able to figure the precise measurements of the room. From there the approximate measurements of the props are deduced. All of these calculations verify the accuracy of Vermeer's perspective.

Before someone suggests the use of such an instrument makes Vermeer little more than a painter-by-number, or who merely traces his scenes, x-rays reveal no line drawings or sketches beneath the paint. A camera obscura would be an aid to capturing the precise ratios found in the paintings, but need not dictate the subject or the arrangement of the paintings. There are also many variations, such as several styles of floor tiles in what is apparently the same room, which shows Vermeer did not paint everything precisely as he saw it. In those eleven paintings shines his skill in choosing and arranging a subject, and then rendering it in a special style.

In the end Mr. Steadman reveals what he finds to be that special style: Vermeer was not so much a painter of a scene, like many of his Dutch contemporaries, as he was a painter of light. He exercizes great control over the lighting of his paintings through windows and shutters and curtains. He also has a tendency to leave the outlines of an object undefined, which the mind accounts for. The most obvious example is the nose of the Girl With a Pearl Earring (displayed and further examined with our seventeenth book), which is rendered in the same tone as the cheek, leaving the nose, upon close inspection, without form. Mr. Steadman explains,
Vermeer starts to paint patches of light and colour, not fingers or bodices or violas.
There is an excellent website that is a companion to the book, called Vermeer's Camera. There one will find a detailed synopsis of the book, many of the drawings and reconstructions, including some that are not in the book. Mr. Steadman also offers an additional essay similar in style and tone as the rest of the book on The Little Street. Whether or not you believe Mr. Steadman's hypothesis, the book and website provide an astounding wealth of surrounding information and detail concerning Vermeer and his works that anyone interested in the painter or the art would be well advised to read.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book Nineteen

We had a good old-fashioned small town garage sale this weekend, featuring 10,000 books, during which we read our nineteenth book this year, the Praise of Folly, by Erasmus.

Moriae Encomium was written with Thomas More as the intended audience. Folly, a woman, addresses a crowded assembly with a eulogy in praise of herself. The first half of the book celebrates in a bantering tone drunkeness, ignorance, self-love, flattery, forgetfulness, idleness, pleasure, madness, sensuality, revelry, and sound sleep. Folly says
I am the one--and indeed, the only one--whose divine powers can gladden the hearts of gods and men.
Erasmus then turns to satire in Folly's criticism of the politics of the time:
Picture the prince, such as some of them are today: a man ignorant of the law, well nigh an enemy to his people's advantage while intent on his personal convenience, a dedicated voluptuary, a hater of learning, freedom, and truth, without a thought for the interests of his country, and measuring everything in terms of his own profit and desires. Then give him a gold chain, symbol of the concord between all the virtues, a crown studded with precious stones to remind him that he must exceed all others in every heroic quality. Add a sceptre to symbolize justice and a wholly uncorrupted heart, and finally, the purple as an emblem of his overwhelming devotion to his people. If the prince were to compare these insignia with his way of life, I'm sure he would blush to be thus adorned, and fear that some satirist would turn all these trappings into a subject for mockery and derision.
Most of the remainder of the second half of the book is devoted to a fierce critique of organized religion. Folly's attack reaches monks, popes, and commoners, and she reveals what she believes to be the genuine message and mission of Jesus, offering proofs of Jesus' own folly. Her most pointed admonishments are aimed at religious officials, and she frequently reminds us that ecclesiastical titles denote a function in the church, not power or status.

Perhaps the guise of Folly served as a shield behind which Erasmus could hide from authorities while he launched his attacks. Though the first part of the book is (certainly from Folly's point of view) just as serious as the rest, the light-hearted tone makes one question the sincerity of all the praises. It is in the satire and criticism that Erasmus makes arguments most convincing, and most threatening to those in power. There Folly proves to be unexpectedly earnest. Indeed, at the end she notes
I've long been forgetting who I am, and I've 'overshot the mark'.
But then isn't that one of the best aspects of Folly?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Local Man in Despair Over Present State of Journalism

In "Why Don’t Journalists Get Religion? A Tenuous Bridge to Believers," Gal Beckerman writes
“Religious issues, issues of faith, issues of moral choice, those burdens and struggles that all human beings undergo — those issues deeply interest me,” {New York Times reporter Chris] Hedges says. “Death, birth, love, alienation, sin. This is the real news of people’s lives.”

Yet those are the stories we almost never see.
Later in the same essay, Steve Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet, says, “In the life of an individual, the big news event is not who came in second in the Iowa caucus. It’s the death of their parents, the birth of their child.”

This afternoon, the local television news opened with a shooting, a fire, a car crash, a missing person, a trial concerning a recent homicide, and a trial concerning a murder over ten years old. None of it has any bearing on us.

What news did the travelers of medieval times bear? Probably such news was meant to convey information, expand knowledge and understanding of the world, and so covered political and economic issues, and inventions or other changes. Events like a gallop-by slaying, the burning of someone's hut, a nightsoil cart crash, a disappeared magician, and a witch-trial, meant to captivate, titilate, and entertain an audience, probably fell to the troubadour to relate. Though they might have been true, they were correctly presented as stories. So the tease on television today goes, "These and other stories coming up at ten." Such is the state of modern local news, feeding us stories.

A regular feature of this news is the bad thing that someone did because they read it in a book, or saw it in a movie. The news is usually purported to be the uproar after, when angry book-hating parents demand that Setting Free the Bears be banned before another child decides to let all the animals out of the zoo; or Interview With a Vampire be removed from the shelves because it has glamorized the sucking of blood and the sleeping in coffins, and there is an epidemic of troubled Goth teens. The blame on books is nothing new, though, as even in the 1830s a defendant claimed he never would have comitted murder if he had not read about the crime in William Harrison Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard. Surely this can't be the only news there ever is? Why don't we ever hear about someone inspired by a book to do something good?

The Bible is said to contain the Good News. Though one can easily argue the cons of religious tomes such as the Bible or the Koran, these books have certainly inspired millions of people to be good and do good, especially in charity. How many people have been charmed by Walden into becoming a naturalist? How many people would ever fall in love if they had not read of it in books? How different would the American Revolution have progressed if the colonials had not been inspired by the writing of Thomas Paine? Not everyone wants to rule the universe; some, if not more, want to save it.

Though The Onion is meant as parody, often they feature wonderful stories about simple good things, like "Local Homemaker Fights To Overcome Rubbermaid™ Addiction." Isn't this something we all must face at some time in our life? What has happened that the presentation of some good act or useful information is found merely humorous?

Novelist Gena Showalter encourages her readers to share their news. Never is it my husband left me, or my son failed his algebra test, or my boyfriend just ran over my cat.

Local news could stand being turned on its head. Fill up the first ten minutes or so with those feel-good stories that are usually relegated to the end, and save the murder story for the closing seconds (if the weatherbabe doesn't go long).

The Great Space Coaster had a character that was a talking gnu. Gary Gnu hosted a segment that was called The No Gnews Is Good Gnews Show. We think Gary had the right idea.

Friday, May 4, 2007

On Apprenticeships

Callie bristles at the bold assertion that all bloggers are in it for the money. She doesn't make money blogging. We don't make money blogging. I suspect few bloggers make any money at blogging. So why do it?

The question assumes that money is the reason for everything. We would not be surprised if 90% of all writers don't make money writing, or have to supplement their writing income in order to pay the rent. Before Vermeer's time, artists lived the high life on their art, having wealthy patrons for their support. Beginning in Vermeer's time, artists produced art for themselves, and if they wanted to make money at it, they had to find a way to sell their art to the public. Today, patrons of the arts primarily build museums, or make donations to charitable funds, or throw lavish champagne parties for other wealthy patrons to coincide with the opening of an exhibition. No longer do they pay artists to live and produce art.

So, taking the assumption that money is the reason for everything, and tweaking it, one wonders what is the payoff in blogging for nothing. Again, the reward has been lost in history. Knowledge is something which fewer and fewer people have today. More and more people have specialized skills--that is not the same as knowledge. The old way of gaining knowledge, or learning a subject, and probably the best way, was apprenticeships.

Often beginning in youth, people became apprentices to a master in a guild. In the guild, one learned far more than just how to cobble a shoe, or fire a brick, or paint a portrait. Apprentices worked their way from the ground up, doing all the menial tasks for the master, and thereby learning every detail of the craft, including the work involved. More importantly, apprentices learned critical thinking, how to analyze, accept, reject, improve, and codify knowledge. They made no money, but they acquired intellectual capital.

Following this period of apprenticeship, which typically lasted for seven years, one attained the level of a journeyman. Journeymen were day laborers in possession of documents from their master or guild which certified them and entitled them to travel in practise of their craft or art. When they finally produced and presented to their master what was deemed a Great Work, they attained the level of master, at which time they became members of the guild. And so the process would be repeated.

Stefanie tangentially laments the things taught in today's schools. What is offered to prospective students these days is not so much knowledge--intellectual capital--but image. Too many students aren't interested in the best teaching, they are interested in the best college. Commercials don't entice one with the reality of learning, they lure with the final goal, upward social mobility, the making of money, the high-paying cushy job (though your results may vary). Schools do not teach critical thinking, they teach capitalist skills, such as balancing a checkbook, or producing a spreadsheet. Details and context are left out of education. The goal of all this is not to produce individuals in possession of intellectual capital, but to produce good consumers.

Once again, when we look back to previous centuries, the finishing touch to any good education was a grand tour of Europe. This was equivalent to the work of the journeyman, traveling, learning, acquiring additional intellectual capital, and honing one's ability to think critically. Once this was achieved, the person was ready to produce a Great Work. Today, four years of partying in college is seen as the final inevitable step in an education. Students learn what they are told, see what they are shown, and more often than not feel they are entitled to whatever they want, because they are paying for it--they don't learn, they purchase an education. Only the few who move on to a doctorate fully follow the path of apprenticeship, a thesis being the equivalent of a Great Work.

Some bloggers aren't trying to make money at blogging. Some recognise their efforts as an honing of their critical thinking abilities, an accumulation of intellectual capital, or an apprenticeship to a career in writing. Knowledge is its own reward. Critical thinking exposes the fallacy that money is the reason for everything.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Book Eighteen

Daniel J. Boorstin wrote the eighteenth book we have read this year, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. This is billed as a companion to his previous work The Discoverers. We chose to read the second title first, because it is creativity that interests us more than discovery. This order also allowed us to know we enjoyed Mr. Boorstin's writing enough to read another of his books.

Mr. Boorstin calls this book a kind of biography, in that it is filled with essays concerning the lives and works of many great artists and other pioneers of creativity. Through over 700 pages of text, we are taken on a roughly chronological survey of man's cultural history, beginning with the world's various stories of Creation itself, and ending with modern film. The text is grouped in Books, which are divided by Parts, which are further divided by Chapters which treat individuals or small groups of a particular type of creation. This structure gives an interesting view of the progression of culture, and especially the arts, through the ages. We always had the feeling that pioneering works happened quite randomly. In the author's personal note, Mr. Boorstin says, "We must find order in the random flexings of the imagination." And so his book strongly suggests that different types of creativity occur in clumps, or, better, in great leaps of advancement, and lead to other types.

Broadly speaking, this book covers both eastern and western cultures, treating religion, philosophy, ancient and modern architecture, all forms of images, music and dance, and a good amount of literature. There are interesting profiles on Isadora Duncan, Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Edward Gibbon. We never knew what a prolific artist Pablo Picasso was: the assessors of his estate inventoried over 50,000 works in a variety of media, and there is no telling how many works he sold, gave away, and destroyed while alive. There were chapters on things that little interested us, like the Japanese use of wood in building, or the philosophy of Boethius. In every essay Mr. Boorstin stays true to his theme and explains the background of the creative leap and its importance. Our two favorite chapters explored the genius of Proust and Goethe.

This is a long book but each chapter is easily read in short sittings. There is a wealth of information, and at times it seemed as if certain facts were repeated within the same essay, as if Mr. Boorstin ocassionally lost track of what he included and where. The book is fleshed out with many notes, and the whole is indexed. Though Mr. Boorstin doesn't seem to make any spectacular revelations or provocative assertions, the writing is simple, clear, and digestable. We enjoyed our reading, and will most likely pick up The Discoverers, too.

We give it three (out of five) pipefuls.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"I've never heard of that."

One thing we have been surprised to learn from the bookshop and from litblogs is that so many people are blissfully unaware of so many great books. Undoubtedly, we are, too.

Tiresias has joined our Literary Salon book club. To his disappointment, the first book he read with us was The Road. Among the members it was not universally disliked. Without knowing what the author has to say about his own book, it is impossible to know if it is a success or not. Some things are clear, though: The Road is a superbly successful product, and it is plainly unliterate. Tiresias was actually turned away from reading for a couple weeks by this book.

As the group set to select the next book, someone pulled from the shelf The World According to Garp, by John Irving. We were the only one to have read it, and we praised it highly. It was not nominated, but when the votes were cast, it won. And now Tiresias has had his faith in books renewed.

Today he wondered how he had never heard of the book, or the author. Did the book win any awards, and if not, why, because clearly it is more well-written than The Road? The way Irving puts the novel together is masterful. And then, to his surprise, Tiresias learned something about the structure of a novel, the in medias res beginning, the heightening conflicts, the black moment, the climax, and the denouement. He has been a voracious reader, but never noticed in the books he read these elements for what they were.

Throughout the blogosphere we find ourselves repeating in disbelief: never read Midnight's Children? is Jude the Obscure sad? Alice in Wonderland for children? who is Garcia Marquez? is Dracula as good as Interview With a Vampire? wasn't The Tin Drum a movie? How we always thought we had read so few of the essential books, and come to find that so many others have read fewer than we have.

The greatest thing is that we haven't read all the great literature yet either. We are always looking for someone to turn us on to new books, truly great works, as opposed to simply an entertaining story. Just today we had an interest in Erasmus kindled. There is always something new to be learned, and it is all out there, in books.