Archive for September, 2014

Wisdom & Spiritual Texts

September 30, 2014

I haven’t written about my response to spiritual writings before, as it’s quite a challenge. But they are a part of literature, alongside anything else that people may feel them to be…

I’ve read the Bible at least three times through, and have found myself liking it less and less each time. It’s a vital part of our Western cultural heritage, and underpins many of our values. I have always liked the old, familiar Old Testament stories, and have felt saddened that today’s children are unlikely to be familiar with them – as a teacher I found myself having to explain an awful lot of references in literature. I find a great deal of the Old Testament to be full of violence and warfare and cruelty. Some of the psalms I find beautiful, many repetitive. And yes, I know about that style of writing. I am most drawn to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament (those which Protestants assign to the Apocrypha) – Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom, and the like; these texts most resemble the calmer thoughts of Eastern spiritual texts. But the language is often quite sexist, and demeaning to women. So the texts are of their time, and some sects choose to rephrase them in ‘inclusive’ language; I’m not sure about doing that to any text…

I like the gospels for their familiar stories, and for the ideas in them, Jesus as a teacher with a new and challenging message in his times, and ideas which can still have relevance for us today. I’m also interested in the very different agendas the different evangelists have when telling their stories. Paul’s epistles I have always found hectoring, dull and sexist; they are of their time. Recently I have been interested in the epistle of James. And the Revelation I have always found deeply disturbing and disturbed.

Overall, I think that if a God had meant this collection of texts to rule all aspects of our lives, then s/he would have made a rather better and more coherent job of it.

The Qur’an I have become more interested in recently. It’s hard to read, though I’ve managed once; as I understand it, it is meant to be recited, and I have found it much more accessible through a recording (librivox again, if you are interested). I’m also aware that the Qur’an is in Arabic, and that in any other language it’s actually only a ‘version’. I’m astonished at how much overlap there is between stories and characters in the Bible and the Qur’an, although that is perhaps not so surprising when I recollect where in the world both texts originated. Like the Old Testament, it’s full of threats, warnings and dire punishments for those who stray from the right path, but to me it has also a stronger emphasis on a God who cares for and about his people. I have to admit that my knowledge and understanding of it is very limited, but I can see why it is venerated and respected by its followers, in ways in which the Bible does not seem to be.

I have also read the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, The Analects of Confucius, and Marcus AureliusMeditations, which I include under the heading of ‘wisdom and spiritual texts’, although their status seems rather different. To me they are focused on what I would call ‘right living’, which I think is very important, maybe paramount; they focus on suggestion rather than command, and they do not threaten dire consequences if one does not follow them: maybe they presume intelligence and benevolence in their readers as a starting-point? They are enigmatic; they demand slow and close reading and re-reading. They certainly do not suggest that to live well, or contentedly, is an easy and straightforward task, although they do think it is something for the wise to strive for. as I have grown older, this approach is one that I have gradually come to agree with.

I hope I have not offended anyone with my musings, but this is my blog and these are my thoughts.

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Children’s Books

September 26, 2014

A recent challenge on Facebook asked me to name ten books that had stayed with me. Being advanced in years, that gave me a fair bit to reflect on: The Wind in the Willows made its way into the list. And then I posted it, and carried on thinking about how and what I read as a child…

I was a voracious reader; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own (as a family we didn’t have the money to buy many books) and ran out of books to read in the children’s section of Stamford Public Library and was given a special dispensation to use the adult library at age 11.

The first book I remember I loved was Winnie the Pooh; then came Kenneth Grahame‘s classic, which I still love, and which, incidentally, is available as a marvellous free recording from the librivox website, and a serialisation of The Borrowers in a children’s comic I read at the time. I remember reading that aloud with my own daughter some 30 years later: the omnibus volume was so long that we only got halfway through: she was a reader of her own by then. I devoured all the books in the classrooms at school: I remember the adventures of a bear called Mary Plain, that continued through lots of books, ages before Paddington became a hit. And there came boys’ books, too: the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge: humorous adventures at boarding school years before I actually went to one. Biggles – how many books were there? – by Captain W E Johns, and then a curious discovery of a series of novels about the ‘Secret Planet‘ which must have been what kindled a life-long love of science fiction. There was also a many-volume series called ‘The Young Traveller in (supply name of country)’ which perhaps interested me in travel, another passion which has stayed with me throughout my life. Two children – a boy and a girl, of course – and their parents travelled through a country, visiting its interesting and historic places and learning about them, meeting the inhabitants and sampling the food; all good, wholesome fare for a child, and opening his eyes to the way that people and places could be different.

At some point Sherlock Holmes came along, too, in the form of a paperback for five shillings, bought with a Christmas book token (remember those?) from a relative: again, I never looked back, as many of my students, and my own children can testify.

When our own children came along and we read to and with them, I was astonished by the much wider range of books available, and the colourfulness, too: my childhood books had been full of words, black on white, and perhaps some monochrome photographs in a centre section if I were lucky. Books encouraged my fantasies and unleashed my imagination; books showed me other worlds and other ways to be; books made me think…

I realised how early the joy of words had come to me, how many of my lifelong pleasures had been triggered during my childhood days. I had the run of a library, and was encouraged to read as much as I wanted at school, and I loved it. Books are magic.

Shakespeare’s First Folio

September 24, 2014

I’ve finally watched the recent programme by Simon Russell Beale in the BBC Secret Life of Books series, and was mildly disappointed: nothing new revealed, just some nice shots of very old books to drool over, really. A missed opportunity, but it had me reflecting on my life with Shakespeare.

Quite a few years ago, when in need of a treat, and feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio. It is a lovely book, and there is something quite magical in being transported back four centuries and seeing the complete works as they first appeared from the press. And yet, it’s a complete fake, of course. The Norton edition is a collation of photographic reproductions of the best pages from dozens of different First Folios, all collected at the Folger Library somewhere in the US, I can’t remember where. So, as a fascimile it’s the best possible one to have: no blurred or smudged pages, and so on. Just that the ‘original’ of it doesn’t exist!

Texts, especially Shakespeare’s, are edited and interpreted for us before we read them. Different quartos (if these exist) and the various folios are compared, decisions taken where uncertainties exist; spellings are often modernised, as is punctuation, words are glossed and explained in footnotes: our access to 16th/17th century texts is eased, simplified. Although there are the famous ‘cruxes’ – words or phrases that nobody has succeeded in making head or tail of since then: the ‘arm-gaunt steed’ in Antony and Cleopatra, for instance – that remain to puzzle us.

At this point it is good to remind oneself that these plays were written to be performed in the theatre, not pored over in a classroom or lecture theatre, and I often did remind my students of this fact. And how different the experience is: language that seems impenetrable on the page is instantaneously digested and understood with ease – if only partially – and interpreted for us with the help of the action onstage. The play is brought to life – oh so powerfully and as intended – and we receive what Shakespeare intended, but then remember it has been mediated by a director and the actors…

Studying the written text can be very revealing and very fulfilling: one can explore, and focus on the power of the language and the cleverness of the writer; one can seek connections and links throughout a play; one can analyse rhyme or rhythm. None of this is a substitute for the real thing. And yet, it’s partly this that has led to the hagiography of Shakespeare over the centuries. Not that that is undeserved, but I suspect it does mean that it is no longer possible to stand sufficiently far enough back to get any real perspective on the man and his work in his time. As Simon Russell Beale pointed out, if the First Folio hadn’t been compiled, then we’d only have half of Shakespeare’s plays. What would we make of him then?

Edited texts: the Arden Shakespeare second series was always the gold standard in my student days and is still the one I prefer, though long discontinued. The Arden third series is good, though not as good, and if I had to recommend a modern edition it would be the New Cambridge Shakespeare, which certainly now has the edge. And for a smaller and cheaper edition, it is still hard to beat the New Penguin, with its excellent introductions, though having to flip to the back for notes and glosses has always annoyed me.

I was amused to read of the glitch – a two hour bomb-scare – at the opening of the new Shakespeare theatre in the Polish city of Gdansk: of course, the silly Prime Minister did mention the name of the Scottish play….

 

The death of reference books

September 23, 2014

It’s autumn, and so in our house, the annual clearout begins. This includes pruning the library, and I’m getting rid of a lot of old reference books. This had me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I look things up.

I still use dictionaries, (well, I would, being an ex-English teacher and crossword fan: it’s far easier with a book in your lap) so the faithful Chambers is on the shelves – our third copy, I think – though I often find myself using the OED online, as I have free access via our local library log-in. But paper encyclopaedias and gazetteers are now useless, I find, because the information available on the web is much more up-to-date, and easily accessible. Paper atlases and maps, however, I still find immensely useful when reading all the travel writing I consume: the detail, the clarity and the ability to relate one area to another is far easier than on something like Google Maps; the only time when online maps come into their own, I find, is when very small detail is needed.

General encyclopaedias pale into insignificance next to wikipedia. And who consults the Encyclopedia Britannica any more? Apparently, it’s hard to give away old printed sets, and it’s no longer the default source for detailed knowledge on the web either. Thanks to an excellent librarian at the school where I used to work, we were all trained in how to set up useful searches, and how to evaluate web sources for reliability and truthfulness, so why wouldn’t I start my quest for further knowledge on the web?

When it comes to more specific or specialised information, then I still think paper reference books have a place. I have a couple of sets of encyclopaedias of world literature which are still getting ever more well-worn, and I have not switched to using exclusively online information when travelling and touring; I would still much rather have a detailed guidebook and supplement this with latest online information as and when I need it. I need a paper map to find my way around unfamiliar towns and cities.

It is astonishing, though, how in a decade or so, our access to and use of information, has been revolutionised. I resent the waste of paper when a new – admittedly thinner – phone directory or yellow pages drops through the letterbox, as I can’t remember when I last used either. Instant, quality information on anything is at my fingertips, and, what I probably find most amazing of all, information I never knew I could have is there, courtesy of being able to surf and browse. People sometimes complain that the web is being taken over by huge corporations who only want to mine data, spy on us and sell us crap: this is undoubtedly true, and yet there is also such a tremendous resource of useful material, offered free, out there, and I’m immensely grateful to organisations like Project Gutenberg and Librivox, for example, who have revolutionised some aspects of my life…

Long Reads…

September 23, 2014

I have a (very large) pile of books that sit waiting to be read, and gradually work my way through them, often picking the next one on a whim; books get added as one book suggests the need or desire to read another. And then, there’s a small, select pile of large tomes, that are waiting to be read one day. These are different from the rest: I know they need concentration, or a long stretch of time – such as a holiday – to enable me to get through them. I don’t mean this to sound like a chore, as it isn’t.

So I had saved up John Eliot Gardiner’s biography of Bach (see my previous post) since last Christmas (it was a present) deliberately for the holiday I recently took in Saxony and Thuringia in the footsteps of the composer. As I remarked, it was a challenging read, and it took me over a fortnight. I normally get through books rather more rapidly than that. I have on my shelves a couple of enormous French tomes, one on deserts, one on travel in Russia – over a thousand pages in each anthology – which I’m saving up for the right moment, probably another long holiday somewhere.

I wondered if other readers select books like this, and also found myself thinking about my attention span. I’ve read a good deal lately suggesting that the internet, browsing and hypertext links are perhaps reducing our attention spans (I think the jury is still out on this one, really) and when I was teaching in schools I noticed how textbooks were changing, no longer presenting students with chapters of text to read, but double-page spreads, with lots of little boxes in different colours, nothing in any real depth or detail, skimming the surface of a topic. I use the internet a lot, and cannot imagine life without it: am I less able to concentrate on longer and more demanding texts? Too bad, if that is the case, I guess.

Confession: there are books, bought with the thought ‘that looks really interesting…’ that continue to sink down the unread pile, and which, if I’m really honest, will never be read, and ought to be given to a charity shop. There are one or two books on my bookshelves which have been there, unopened, for half a lifetime…

John Eliot Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven

September 20, 2014

9780713996623 I’ve recently fulfilled a 30-year-old ambition, and visited the sites in Germany linked to J S Bach, and I took this book along as suitable reading to accompany my exploration. It’s a difficult book, especially for someone like me who loves music but has very little musical knowledge or understanding and plays no instrument; it’s a rewarding book which I read slowly and know that I can and will come back to in smaller doses as I re-listen to Bach’s music.

Gardiner takes his own track through the composer’s life and musical development, seeking to and succeeding in demolishing some of the hagiography that surrounds Bach. The focus is on his church music in particular, which suited me, as that has always been at the heart of my enjoyment of Bach. It’s highly contextual, which I found extremely helpful – all sorts of information is brought in to explain and enlighten aspects of Bach’s life and work, and Gardiner does benefit from all the latest research into the composer’s life and career (one of the things I found most eye-opening on my trip was just how much is still to be found/ discovered/ worked out).

That the book is also written by a performer – and a very distinguished one – with a love of the church music at the heart of all he does, was significant to me, and provided plenty of new insights for this uneducated reader. So, not an easy read, and probably not one to start with in an exploration of Bach, but nevertheless highly recommended.

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