The good stories

Reading out loud to our son is great. We all love a good story. Whether it’s about Peter Pan or Simon Peter (two very different characters often mixed up around here).

Children’s Literature isn’t just enjoyed by Children however. In fact, one of the subtler pleasures of Children’s literature is the transformative effect it can have on us as adults. It can remind us of of the things worth passing on, the best of civilization, the very things we’re too busy to remember ourselves.

My son received a handsome gift edition of The Jungle Book for Christmas. The whole family has been enjoying it. Characters switch positions faster than square dancers in Kipling’s stories about Mowgli. The story of Kaa’s Hunting, my favorite, is all about Turnabout – seeing yourself on the other side of the table. Watching our favorites, our heroes go round and round, changing sides, confusing their positions and forgetting where they are, it’s easier to see why sometimes tables need to be turned over.

Even a child’s book on manners reminds us, adults, grown-ups, of how we should treat each other. We forget how the simple niceties are the kindness we should expect from one another. Not so grown up, I guess.

Harold Bloom, who does not prefer to use the title Children’s Literature (this doesn’t mean he can come up with a better phrase, though), seems to think the stories we tell to our children help them to be separate and distinct, building up the individual to fight off the despair of the solitary life. I disagree. In the introduction to his excellent, yet poorly titled, collection of stories for children he notes that the Homeric epics were chanted aloud to audiences and that Chaucer wrote in order to read his work aloud at the royal court. The works that have shaped us were meant to be enjoyed together. I think no book can be for a child alone.

I’d appreciate any tips you have on picking out good stories or any recommendations on stories for children you might have. Please let me know in the comments.

N.B. Miyamoto Musashi is a terrible children’s writer. He will fill a child’s head up with exactly the wrong sort of “silly” ideas. I have almost no idea where the picture at the top of this post came from.

… and that’s not my son in the picture.

Not so nice price

Imagine this: You go to a bookstore, browse, choose a couple of volumes. But you don’t want to carry the books around. So you ask the clerk to hold the tomes until Saturday, when you’ll come back to buy them.

When you return, the bookseller hands you the items but advises you that he’s raised the prices. “I knew you were hot to buy them,” the clerk says, “so I figured I could make a few extra bucks.”

An interesting article here on how Amazon prices their books.

We Await Something To Edify

The other taunting book on my shelf, The Crying of Lot 49. A little easier to handle than Gravity’s Rainbow.

This is one of the few books I’ve read with a heroine. A nerdy guy like me notices these things. Anna Karenina is really the only other “girl” book on my shelf and she’s really not the heroine. It doesn’t matter – Pynchon and Tolstoy also have slightly different approaches to the novel. One wants to create the illusion of life and the other wants to recreate life’s illusions. Which is more real, I wonder?

Anyways, our heroines name is Oedipa Maas. Pynchon is great at coming up with ridiculously suggestive names. Tyrone Slothrop? The King of apathy and casual sex. Oedipa Maas? How about Oedpial Mass? Like some kind of Gnostic Cannibalism. Appropriate for the riddling, ruining communion with the paranoid and her self she undertakes. Although, “Oedipus, my ass!” might be another hint. Sometimes, however, Pynchon goes too far with his fanciful made up names. Wernher von Braun? Come on, Pynchon.

What’s the book about, really? I don’t know, it’s a bit of a satire on the hip, intellectual, working, twenty-something life of the 1960s. Oedipa starts on the trail of a mystery, an acronym, W.A.S.T.E., which leads to a vast underground conspiracy (that everyone seems to know about) pointing back to the renaissance and pointing towards who knows what. Or maybe she’s following W.A.S.T.E. into madness.

That’s the thing, “Or”. Either/Or. As Oedipa finally approaches the truth she finds an artifical construct forced upon her.

… now it was like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. Either Oedpia in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real [conspiracy].

The digital world of zeroes and ones is an artifical construct that translates the startling power of electricity into this or that, yes or no. Either/Or. When we impose these artificial divisions on the world (I’m looking at you religion and science) we’re not only mistaken, we are, like Oedpia Maas, killing ourselves. And there is no hope, Pynchon seems to say, in knowing the truth. When the trumpet finally blasts and the sky peels back Pynchon would have us believe that we’ll only find ourselves, looking into a mirror, nervously trying to laugh.

At least, I think. I am so totally allowed to have a completely subjective opinion on a post-modern novel, though.

Would I recommend The Crying of Lot 49? I won’t say for sure. It’s a little too gonzo to take seriously. But then, it’s so serious. I don’t want to force myself into an Either/Or position on this one.

Dont you ever stop long enough to start

Still fiddling with the design I’m afraid. Looking at the site at 800 x 600 resolution I realize my modifications are about as fluid as a stone. I need some CSS lessons. Or maybe Moses.

I’ve added a gradient to the top to soften things up a bit. I’ve probably been looking at that Firefox start page too often. I’ve also added recent comments to the sidebar – another brain-breaking addition. Beautiful Beta and Beta Blogger for Dummies are big helps if anyone else is thinking about bastardizing their Blogger template.

Thank you to Elliot and Imani for adding me to your Blogrolls. I feel like a real blogger. And thank you to the 50 people who appear to be reading this blog regularly. Wow! Don’t go away, I’ll get better, I promise.

Hey, I’m new, 50 people is a lot.

I think I’m now officially addicted to my Google Analytics. There’s no cure for that is there? No? Magnificent!

Good Religion

Warren Kinsella reviews Belief In God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and A Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism and Christianity for the Anglican Journal.

Initially, Graffin – whose best-selling recent album, The Empire Strikes First, depicted on its cover a feral skeleton in clerical vestments – is contemptuous. “I was never baptized, never aware of a single story from the Good Book, never programmed by religious teachers, and never concerned about life after death.” By the book’s conclusion, however, his angry tone – if not his position – has undergone a perceptible shift.

“I think,” acknowledges Graffin, “there are all sorts of realities that we learn as we mature, and we are forced to rewrite our worldviews.”

The full text of the article is here. Puts me in the mood for redemption songs.

A screaming came across my brain

There are two books on my shelf that almost stare at me and taunt me as I pass by. Two books that I think I enjoyed reading. Maybe. I might also have hated reading at least one. I think.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a story about – uh, I don’t think that will work for this one. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon tries to – um, no. Let me try again.

What is Gravity’s Rainbow? A parabola. The path of the V2 rocket as it screams across the sky. If Noah’s Rainbow is God’s covenant with man, Gravity’s Rainbow is man’s covenant with death. And the future. And sex. And the color magenta. And possibly Mickey Rooney, if I recall correctly. Certainly Pavlov. Probably alien pinballs and intelligent societies of lightbulbs too. Pynchon was trying, I think, to express his feelings on Modernity, on our totally corrupted deranged nature.

The publishers would have you believe, in the hopes of selling the novel to you, that the plot (people like plots) revolves around one Tyrone Slothrop whose erections attract V2 rockets. Why anyone, why I, in fact, would find this interesting is a mystery. But the book isn’t really about this anyways. Well it is. But it isn’t. Cheat-reading this book won’t be an option.

Gravity’s Rainbow is notorious for briefly being the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The three member jury were unanimous in their decision. The fourteen member Pulitzer board, however, had other thoughts. Like: Turgid, Unreadable, Overwritten, and Obscene. I’ll agree with all of those. It certainly is obscene. Oh wow, is it obscene. But it’s also absolutely brilliant and fascinating.

One of my favorite reading experiences is encountering the total expression of theme. Form perfectly mirroring content and vice versa. A great example of this is Oedipus Rex. There the the mounting irony reflects the condition of Oedipus. We know what we should not as he does not know what he should. Pynchon is a master of expressing theme structurally. The well of Gravity’s Rainbow falls into the novel itself creating an inebriating chronologically nested structure. Ahem. That is, mirroring the path of the rocket, the parabola, the book moves in and out of time in arcs. Without warning. When Character A shifts to B, then C, and D, and so on, then back up to D, C, B and then A again. Or instead of characters it might be periods in time. Once you realize what’s happening it’s quite exciting – if inebriating. I mean, it made me feel drunk. Like I was drinking. Not a metaphor – the book made me drunk.

And there are ideas aplenty. Tangents to follow up. Truth, half-truths and lies to pursue. And hilarious, slapstick, loony-tunes humor.

But, I don’t really want to read it again even though it is brilliant. Well, I really do, but, then again, not really. The book is insanely exasperating and quite obscene as mentioned above. And it has so much to recommend. But I can’t recommend it.

I’ll follow this up with that other taunting book by Pynchon (his books aren’t aware of the pathetic fallacy) sitting on my shelf. I can’t recommend it either but it’s certainly not a w.a.s.t.e. of time.

How to "cheat-read"

“Mark has a confession to make. He has recently started doing what he calls cheat-reading of certain books. He really likes cheat-reading books. Particularly because he has a house with 20,000 books and by cheat-reading he can get to a lot more of them.”

“This is what I did. I committed to reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. If I found the sentence interesting I would skim the rest of the paragraph. If it were really interesting I would read the entire paragraph. I also could just go on to the second sentence and then make that choice again how to read the rest. That’s it. It was just a formal way of skimming the book, I suppose, but I made sure I got to every paragraph. Basically, I commit to reading the first sentence of each paragraph and then however much more and at however much depth seems appropriate. ”

The full article is here. I advise cheat-reading it.

I believe this is a variation of what I think Adler calls “The First Pass”. Or something like that. I may have cheat-read that book.