Monday, May 30, 2011

The Twenty-One Balloons

I love the book Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. I read it when I was a little kid, and I still get pleasure out of reading it now. The narrator goes on a long trip by air-balloon, lands on an island populated by a wealthy utopian society, and lives with them for a while until the island (oops, it's Krakatoa!) blows up. The pseudo-scientific technology is fascinating, the description of the island's inhabitants and their customs hilarious, and the narrator's escape from the island is delightful.

But I didn't realize until I read Utopia by Thomas More how much du Bois owed this Renaissance thinker. More has also created a story, told from the viewpoint of Raphael Hytholoday (talker of nonsense), of a far-off land with undisclosed coordinates, upon which a society lives in ways that blend the hilarious and the truly utopian. And in some ways, More is ahead of his time. Euthanasia, marriage of priests, divorce on grounds of mutual dissatisfaction, communal and (sort-of) egalitarian lifestyle . . . it's great, huh?

Of course there are downsides. The island runs partly off of slave labor, women must confess their sins monthly to their husbands, and both free travel and free speech are severely curtailed.

And there are really funny parts, like how the Utopians chain their slaves with gold and silver chains, and even use gold and silver toilets, so that nobody in the society has an unhealthy reverence for (sometimes literally!) filthy lucre.

I'm not sure this piece is going to have a lot of direct relevance to my further studies, unless I refer back to it in my future work on speculative fiction, which often has utopic/dystopic settings. The Tempest makes use of utopian settings and rhetoric; any work I do on history or politics might benefit from Book 1 of Utopia, which is an extended discussion of what makes good government and the role of philosophy in ruling. But . . . I'm not so interested in those things. So, thanks, Thomas More!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Narrative Therapy

I have finally made a tentative prelims list. It's three pages long right now and might get longer as I run it by my other committee members. I feel like crying almost every day when I think about how long it is and how dumb I am. BUT! Like I've said before, the point of this exercise is to gain expertise. Of course I don't have the expertise already, otherwise I wouldn't need to study for prelims. Right? Right. Pass the Kleenex.

My recent trip reading/entertainment has been going really well. Earlier complaints still stand, but I am learning so much from Stephen Greenblatt's book Will in the World. Reading about early modern England in such a laid-back, narrative form is helping me remember and contextualize facts much more easily than reading extremely specific academic articles. Each chapter, while purporting to focus on one narrow aspect of $'s life, also explicates a larger aspect of Elizabethan culture. I'm learning about the religious atmosphere of the time, expectations for romantic relationships between husbands and wives, and, lately, criminal activity and consequences in London.

Along with Dat 'Blatt, I've also been watching The Tudors. Yeah, yeah, it's not completely historically accurate. Don't worry--I don't plan on writing any papers where I support my arguments with examples taken from a TV show. (Or, at least not in early modern drama; I will probably write a paper about Game of Thrones sometime soon. For fun. Because writing academic papers is so fun.) But seriously, watching The Tudors is, again, helping me to remember and contextualize who people are. For instance, why are so many people named Thomas during this time? Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas More, Thomas Wyatt . . . geez. And they don't go by Tommy, or Tom-Bo, or Big T either. So, if anything, by the time I finish watching The Tudors, I should have all my Thomases figured out.

Speaking of all the Thomases, why wasn't a king of England ever named Thomas? Is it the doubter stigma? After the Norman invasion, they're named William, Henry, Richard, Edward, James, Charles, and George. I wonder why those names became regal while perfectly normal names like Christopher, Samuel, Dylan, and Theodore were not. Even today, the three men in line for the throne are named, in order: Charles, William, and Henry.

Finally, the Neal Stephenson book Quicksilver is a lot more helpful to me than I initially supposed. It's largely set in Restoration and Interregnum England and Enlightenment Europe, but I'm getting kings and queens and takeovers and factions sorted in my head, which retroactively helps sort some of the earlier stuff, too. Also, I'm learning all kinds of awesome stuff about the history of science or, as they called it, "natural philosophy." Many natural philosophers are characters in the book: Newton, Hooke, Liebniz, John Wilkins, Benjamin Franklin, etc. As their theories are explained through the voice of a contemporary narrator, older scientific theories are displaced, many of which were in vogue in the early modern period.

At any rate, though, my life of ease and fun, light reading is at an end. I read More's Utopia today and found it better than I had supposed, but still sleep-inducing. Ah, well.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Open Letter to Neal Stephenson

Dear Mr. Stephenson,

I am an avid reader and lover of books. Like many bibliophiles, when asked "What's your favorite book," I squint my eyes, sigh, gesture ineffectually, and attempt to explain how books are like clouds or children or sexual experiences and that one can never really pick an all-time favorite. But the truth is, I have tiers of favorite books.

Books that I have loved: too numerous to list.

Books that have influenced my mental and emotional and imaginative growth: These are listable, but really, is a fan letter the place for that? What do you care? Let's give it a ballpark and say there are about 50.

Books that have shifted my mental landscape irretrievably, to which I return again and again and still reap the rewards of reading: A year ago, there were two. Now there are three: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and your book Anathem.

I haven't read all of your works, or even your most famous books. I'm currently reading the Baroque Trilogy. I'm currently writing a paper on The Diamond Age. And I've read Anathem twice. And each book is so awesomely different.

I love Terry Pratchett, and I could never do what he does. But you read a Terry Pratchett book, and you know you're reading a Terry Pratchett book. There's a pattern, a rhythm to the jokes and images and plots that, even if you can't predict it ahead of time, when you look back, you say, Yes. That fits with all the other stuff I've read by him. But your books don't read this way. They share themes, of course, but experiencing each one is like moving to a new country or a new planet. Toto, we're not on Discworld anymore!

Have you ever played a game with yourself, trying to make yourself uncomfortable but not terrified? Maybe you drive around, trying to lose yourself on unfamiliar streets, hoping that you'll still be able to find the way home. Maybe you're in the ocean and you swim out past where you can touch the bottom. Your heart beats, you're thrilled and alive and extremely uncomfortable. The thing about your writing is that each book pushes my mind into terra nonfirma and makes me sit there a while. The land does not eventually become solid for me. The streets are too strange; the water is too deep. I wouldn't say, even after writing a paper on The Diamond Age, that I totally get what the book is trying to do. But my mind becomes more brave each time I play the game.

Thank you for sharing all of this with all of us.

Exhilaratedly yours,

A Fan

Will in the World, Part 1

I listened to the first two chapters of Will in the World on the way down to the beach. The first chapter is all about Shakespeare's (hereafter referred to by $, like the gangsta he was) country roots and how they later played out in the London environment. He grew up surrounded by "low drama" like the medieval pageant cycles, mystery and miracle plays, mummer's dances, traveling troupes of players, etc. He might have seen more sophisticated theatrical endeavors like the Kenilworth entertainments put on by the Earl of Leicester for Queen Elizabeth. Greenblatt's thesis in this chapter is that, while $ knew he was doing something very different in London, he still realized that he "owed a debt" to his early exposure to low and high drama.

Hearing about the dramatic milieu in which $ grew up, especially the Kenilworth entertainments, was really helpful and wonderful. It is all described in such an easily digestible way, while being lavishly supplemented with quotes from original documents. And I don't quarrel with a supposition like Greenblatt's that $ certainly heard the spectacles at Kenilworth described in great detail. I do quarrel with statements that put sentiments in the mind or mouth of an author. How do we know if $ really felt that he "owed a debt" to his upbringing? Or that, while he realized that life and art in London is where he was meant to be, he never looked down on his more homely roots? Stephen Greenblatt, did you read Shakespeare's diary again? You know better than that!

The second chapter begins by doing something similar when Greenblatt refers to John Shakespeare's vocation as a glover, and infers that this is why there are so many references to leather in $. Yes, because if there's one thing that $ is known for, it's for speeches about gloves and leather. Well, Greenblatt does provide a lot of examples, but it still seems like one of those things that once you look for it in such a large body of work, of course you're going to find some.

However, this is only an introduction to a discussion of John Shakespeare's life. Greenblatt goes on to talk more his success and high social standing, later downfall, in some persuasive and moving ways, highlighting the potential ambivalence that $ seems to show towards fathers and drunkards. And then he explains his earlier comments about glovers by saying that $ obviously had a bit of knowledge about several fields (law, theology, magic, history) and that drawing a connection with gloves only goes to show how easily $ could weave anything into a metaphor or description.

So far, I'm really enjoying it. There is some silly sentimentalizing and a bit of long-stretching going on, but on the whole, it really does what Greenblatt says it does, which is introduce the reader not only to $ himself but to the early modern period in which he lived. If only Greenblatt didn't go on to say "and into the world to which he was so open." Again, that must have come direct from the diary.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Summer Readin'

I'm leaving for my first summer trip on Wednesday. I'm spending a week at Panama City Beach with my parents, driving up to Kalamazoo, Michigan for conference, and then hanging around Berrien Springs and Chicago for general visiting. I'll ending by visiting Tupelo, Mississippi for a high-school graduation. I'll be gone for about two and a half weeks, and log over 2,200 miles of driving.

And, of course, I need reading to bring along. But I don't really want to start the hard-core prelim reading on a trip. I mean, that's just silly, right?

So, instead, I've gotten some more fun reading to bring along. And, like the smart cookie I am, I made everything *sort of* relate to my prelim reading. Sort. Of.

1) Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare." This book is pretty dumb so far. I mean, in the introduction, Greenblatt says that Shakespeare's writing makes him seem more like a god than a mortal. Yikes. Okay, Greenblatt, you and Harold Bloom go stand over there, and the rest of us will have adult conversation.

But Greenblatt is a well respected scholar, even if this particular book is . . . um . . . how to put this . . . imaginative. And I figure, it can't hurt to read some pop scholarship that sort of immerses me in the world of early modern England.

2) Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver," the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. This is historical fiction, set in late 17th century England, France, and America, focusing on knowledge, communication, cryptography, etc.. Again, immersing myself in a world that, if not Jacobean early modern England, arose from was influenced by those political and cultural contexts. Okay, I know it's a stretch. But it's Stephenson. He's magic. I know my mind will be expanded by this.

3) Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything." Of course it relates. It's history! Of everything! And also, it has a lot of science stuff in it, which, while not directly relevant to my major project, might be helpful later . . . because animals are science, right?

I haven't thought of any other books to bring, but I might get another audio book, if I can find a good one. The library has a two-part series about Dante, who seems like someone I should probably know about, right? But it's only a seven-day rental.

Anyways, I'm proud of myself for getting mostly smart books, and not crap fantasy like I usually do. It's time to buckle down and read serious stuff (no more RoJo, for starters). It is strange to look at the process ahead of me and think about the result at the other end.  I am about to become a learnĂ©d person, a classically well-read person, an expert of sorts. I don't feel that way at all right now, and I probably won't feel that way at the end of it. But it sounds fun, to dedicate myself to reading in one field and to get super-smart in that area. Yay!