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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This book has a misleading, too sweet title

by Jamie Lutton

Dante in Love by Harriet Rubin

I have been reading Dante's Inferno since I was a child, living in my parent's house, in the Tri-Cities, Washington State, hiding from the heat of the summer. I was eleven that summer, turning twelve. What drew me in was the large gruesome, horrific ink drawings in the big picture book edition I had. The drawings were by Dore, a french illustrator from the 19th century. I think this edition was translated by Cary. I am writing this from memory, and and doing all this without notes. It was a beat up copy, that I curled up and around, in an old black leather chair that I still have, reading almost upside down.

My encounter with Dante suited my dark little bookworm soul. I had mostly stopped reading children's books, and I was on the prowl for dark and delicious adult books like this, till I discovered that great distractor, Science Fiction, which then occupied my free time for most of my adolescence.

The combination of the stately verse, and the glorious black line drawings of Dore brought HELL to my heart. I walked in HELL with Dante and Virgil, and was haunted by sin and sinners, searching for the divine will in the blackness of this medieval verse book. When you are twelve, and either are the kind of child I was who either disliked or hated most of the people around me, the vicarious pleasure of reading about the damned in hell was enormous. Even as I aged into rocket ships and hobbits, I did keep coming back to HELL, for a march down among the wailing damned, and a glorious examination of Dore's illustrations. ( Dore also illustrated French fairy tales - his Puss in Boots is extraordinary, as is his Little Red Riding Hood. I will spend an entire blog on just Dore as an illustrator another time.)

The problem was, I could not get any further, as I got older. Oh, yes, I faked reading the whole Divine Comedy. I skimmed Purgatory and Paradise, so I could tell the story if someone asked me, by the time I had been a bookseller for years, and I was hawking The Comedy in a used bookshop I owned. I even began to collect different translations of Dante, and make huffy noises along with the best of them about which translations were better. But, but, I was always more comfortable in HELL. HELL spoke to me, with its bone chewing hatred and revenge taking, where Dante put all of his enemies, from rivals to long dead popes to fry or freeze or be chased by monsters, wailing over their lost souls.

Till I read Dante in Love.

Till then, Beatrice, with all her grace, had not yet spoken to me.

.........ever read a book that a author bled into? Dante bled into his Comedy, and it shows when you have a good guide. Harriet Rubin bled into Dante in Love. And it took a writer who suffered to write Dante in Love, to open up the mind of Dante for a modern reader, and a female reader in my case.

I had missed the point, before I read Dante in Love. Oh, sure, I knew that Dante loved Beatrice, and had transformed her in his head into a guiding spirit to lead him to write the Divine Comedy. But angels, fictional or otherwise, do not have much appeal to me. I had never met one in fiction that moved me, or in the Bible. Harriet Rubin reveals Dante's Beatrice connection to Mary, Mother of God. Beatrice would not have been written as she was written if there had not been amazing discussions about the nature of God going on among the theologians of Dante's time.

And Harriet Rubin makes the theology involved interesting.

She achieves her several purposes. First, walking you through Dante's world, and the world of his intellectual peers, and what was going on in Italy, and who the political players were. She does this beautifully, without being too academic, in short, lively chapters. Then, she walks you through the text of the Comedy, using modern translators, and manages to make Purgatory and Paradise not only readable, but hypnotic.

The text of the Comedy that I lazily shied away from, the author grabs my hand and dances me through, line by line, scene by scene, singing like my own personal Beatrice in my eye's ear all along the way. She makes the complete Comedy sing, and she made me fall in love with it for the first time. I read Dante in Love cover to cover twice in two weeks, just to hear her singing commentary in my eye's ear again.

The author is honestly in love with the The Divine Comedy, and the vision that Dante had. You are not plodding along, like a sleepy reading-the-book-at-gunpoint college student, but alive and aware, at Dante's elbow. And your guide is a feminist, a Jew, and a modern woman, so the frames of reference are our here-and-now.

Made clear to an agnostic like me.

And there is something peculiar about the text of Dante in Love. While erudite and clear it is also hypnotic, hallucinatory and fevered. I discovered later after reading it that the author was suffering a crisis while writing it; her husband, a scholar of Petarch (a near contemporary of Dante), was dying as she worked on it.

There are dozens of handbooks to Shakespeare that are very good. At least ten good handbooks to Chaucer. But this book, Dante in Love, is the only friendly handbook to Dante and his world that I have ever seen. The author's perspective is unique to the material, sadly. Dante, in his life, was a political exile from his city and his family, doomed to wander Italy, writing to support himself. So Harriet Rubin's tragedy illuminated this brilliant, friendly book on a very tough classic for a modern reader to finish, and to understand with any completeness.

When I was done with Dante In Love, I sat down with the Singleton translation, and finally carefully read, line for line Purgatory and Paradise, and heard Virgil and Beatrice clearly as Dante wanted me to, when he penned these books, 700 years ago. It is not all HELL, that is just the first step. There is Purgatory and Paradise, too.

Dante in Love is available on line very cheaply. The first 10 people who do not like it can find me, and ask for their money back, if they send me the copy they read. I never get it in used to my bookstore, and I have at least that many customers who I want to read it, and I would gladly buy a copy for them.

But I bet I won't get any copies.

Send all copies of Dante in Love by Harriet Rubin when you are done reading them and you are foolish enough to give up (first 10 copies only apply: in good condition please to. Oh, and you have to tell me why. Typed, double spaced, and no cussing me out because you thought the book was too hard. Offer expires when I get 10 copies, or September 1, 2010.

Jamie Lutton
Twice Sold Tales
P.O Box 20069

WARNING: this is the only book I guarantee on this blog, till further notice.
You may send money; I will accept checks.

John Keegan's The Face of Battle

by Jamie Lutton

As a typical tomboy teenager, I lived and died for Science Fiction. My parents eyed my reading tastes thoughtfully, and suggested that I read this popular novelist, or that murder mystery writer. And they both enthusiastically suggested I read literature and poetry. And also try finishing and turning in my homework once in a while, please.

But I was a Science Fiction addict, of the sort you see in bookshops today, who read and reread the genre fiction to the exclusion of all else. Nowadays, as a bookseller, I see people reading just Star War novels, or just Fantasy, or just cyperpunk; a even smaller subset of the general field. I should not 'pick' on SF fans; many readers only read thrillers, or romance; it is depressing when people get in a rut, when there is so many good books out there...

I worry about some of them never reading anything else, and as I like to meddle in others lives, just as my parents worried about me in their day. I take seriously my job of finding books for my customers, and when I see people living in little, tiny, thin 'book ghettos', I urge them to read other genres. I can of course hear my parent's voices when I do this, but life is too short not try new things. Think of drinking only one kind of beverage your whole life. Stale; that is what reading only one kind of book can be, when there is so many choices, cheaply and easily available.....

This title is one of the books I recommend to Science Fiction fans (among others)...

This book was one of the ones that jolted me out of my obsession on SF. I was in college when it came out, and my reading had already broadened somewhat. I had never been a total ignoramus, as my father and mother loved Shakespeare and would take me to plays of all sorts. In fact, my father loved Henry V, and would read me the prologues from that play, on many occasions. Usually, though, my pocket book was a SF book, as I trusted that field for pleasure reading. I made faces when my mother wanted me to read Literature, as I was sure it would be dull. She was the sort of mom who recited T.S. Eliot to me as a bedtime lullaby, so I had great built up resistance to Great Books she picked out for me.

When I picked this book up, when my father tossed it my way, I was captured by the careful description of how the battle of Agincourt (central to Henry V) really played out. In this book, Keegan compares that battle to Waterloo and the Somme (a central battle in World War l). Keegan's dry wit and keen intelligence here held my attention. Even though I had three big brothers who all devoured military history, I had not gotten the bug till I picked this book up, save to duck when they were having a "war" with bombs made of popcycle sticks and other noxious items.

This particular book I would recommend to anyone who likes Shakespeare's History plays, even a little bit. To anyone who is perplexed by military history, in particular how some classic underdog wins like at Agincourt. And also to Science Fiction fans, as they are fed improbable tales in the light stuff they read, and might like reading true improbable tales.

I had not realized, till I picked up Keegan, how the King Henry had pulled off his win at Agincourt. I don't want to spoil it for you - read it yourself, and see how it differs from the play. It is an incredible account.

Keegan went on to write many other military history books, some of which I thought were good, some not, but this was his breakout book, his shortest, and his best. Start with this book, if you are going to try chewing on any military history, and have not read much history, or have much knowledge of how the military mind works.

This book did have a delirious affect on me. I ran around in my twenties and thirties, reading all the military history that fell into my hands. I collected some hundred books on battles and strategy from the times of the Ancient Greeks to World War Two. But when the United States invaded Iraq, for little or no cause as far as I could tell, I brought most of them back into my bookshop, and sold them, as it was not so much fun anymore. In particular, the battles of the Roman Empire. It was a bit too close for comfort. I was selling less military history, too. Must be because I am in a liberal neighborhood of Seattle, (redundant) but also my readers seemed too sad to read the stuff for fun.

Nevertheless. Pick up The Face of Battle. Even though it is nearly 30 years old now, it has not been surpassed.

In another posting, I will talk about Shakespeare's Henry V, and the good reading that can be had from it. This history play is a favorite of mine, and is a good play to read back to back with Keegan's book. If Shakespeare seems daunting, because of his antique language, rent the 1989 movie version, and watch that, then read my posting. I will talk about where the director soft-pedaled and changed the play to fit modern tastes. This play is a good one to study, no matter what sort of political bent you have. For Shakespeare's genius is to speak all sorts of dark thoughts about the meaning of life, and kingship, even in a play supposedly about a military triumph.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

by John MacBeath Watkins

I recently watched Bell, Book and Candle, a film I hadn't seen in many years. The plot has Gillian (Kim Novak), a witch, place Shep (Jimmy Stewart), a publisher, under a spell to fall in love with her and dump his fiance, who Gillian has a grudge against. A witch cannot fall in love or cry in the mythology of the movie. This struck me, because in my own novel, The Book of Forbidden Words, power over the mind of others is also incompatible with love.

My thinking in making this the case was that love cannot be compelled. Having power to manipulate people against their will is a sociopath's dream. In the film, cold lighting and pale makeup emphasize the emotional coldness of the witch. Once she falls in love, she looses her power as a witch and is given warmer makeup and warmer light.

The wider message here is that emotionally genuine relationships are not compelled, and to the extent that relationships are compelled, this interferes with and can prevent them from being emotionally genuine. Shep does not have power over Gillian, but her part of the relationship cannot be emotionally genuine either; the power to compel dehumanizes the her as well. It is not until the spell is broken that either is able to fall in love with the other.

Evangelical Christians have told me that faith is a choice we make, but this seems wrong to me. If that were true, Pascal's wager would be the best means of conversion. (If God exists and you act as if he didn't, you burn in hell. If he doesn't exist and you act as though he did, all you've done is waste a few Sunday mornings.) The Church didn't buy his logic in Pascal's day, and it's unpersuasive now, because belief is not a choice. It is more like an emotion, more like love than shopping.

To co-mingle the two, if my lover is unfaithful, I may decide to believe she is faithful, but it won't work. Truth will seep in past the door I've chosen to close, because knowledge is not so easily denied.

If belief is an emotion, it is complex, not a thing of reason and evidence only. We may espouse a belief because our social or economic position requires we do so, then conclude that it must be true because we are not bad people and wouldn't say so if it wasn't true. This sort of cognitive dissonance may be necessary for social movements to form and sustain themselves. It may, in fact, be that the more outrageously unlikely are the things we are required to believe, the more we have shown our allegiance to the group that espouses it. It may be that the lies we believe together are more important than the truth we know alone, because they can result in mass action.

This, I think, is why demagogues are so universally condemned. They manipulate emotions, not the least the emotion of belief; in so doing, they dehumanize their followers.

And what of the truth we know alone? Like love, or the pain of knowing love has ended, it seeps past the doors we've tried to close, changes us, and makes us feel more real for knowing it. Such a thing may be painful, and may be at war with the allegiance sworn to our social milieu with our existing beliefs. Others see the change, and react with curiosity or fear, and are changed by it, compelled to learn and be changed or to deny this newly discovered truth and protect themselves from change.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bust the filibuster

This came out in 1996, and no doubt could use some updating, I'm sure, but it is extremely timely, especially with Sen. Reid talking about reforming the filibuster.

Ezra Klein recently interviewed one of the authors.

To tempt you to read it, here's Klein's quote from Sarah Binder:

"In 1805, Aaron Burr has just killed Alexander Hamilton. He comes back to the Senate and gives his farewell address. Burr basically says that you are a great body. You are conscientious and wise, you do not give in to the whims of passion. But your rules are a mess. And he goes through the rulebook pointing out duplicates and things that are unclear."

"Among his suggestions was to drop the previous question motion. And they pretty much just take Burr's advice. And once it's gone, it takes some time for leaders to realize that they can't cut off debate anymore. But the striking part to me was that we say the Senate developed the filibuster to protect minorities and the right to debate. That's hogwash! It's a mistake. Believe me, I would've loved to find the smoking gun where the Senate decides to create a deliberative body. But it takes years before anyone figures out that the filibuster has just been created."

Full text of Klein's article is here:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chaining the word (blue monkey edition)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I have a copy of Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World in which there is a woodcut of a bookseller being burned with his books tied around his neck. Why would anyone do such a thing?

As it happens, it was entirely logical. Eric Hoffer once observed that every religion starts as a great cause, becomes a business, and finally turns into a racket. In that final phase, it doesn't do to let the yokels know what the sacred texts actually say. They might object that the actions of the priests and kings do not accord with the Word.

The authorities had enough trouble suppressing John Wycliffe's translation of the bible into English, which had to be copied by hand, an enterprise that took about ten months for an educated scribe. Wycliffe died of natural causes in 1384, but his bones were dug up and burned so that he could not rise on Resurrection Day, and the English Bible was banned. In spite of this, groups of people gathered in secret to hear the banned text read, often at night in desolate places where they hoped not to be discovered, knowing neighbor had been set to spy on neighbor. They were called Lollards, after a Dutch word that means mutterer. People were put to death for reading the Bible in English to their neighbors.

William Tyndale did a better translation, going back to the Hebrew and Greek (Wycliffe had translated the Vulgate Bible,) and translating the New Testament into fairly modern English (his translation is the basis for much of the King James Bible.) He first tried to print in Holland, but fled just before the printer's shop was raided, fled to Worms, where he was able to print all he could afford. He printed them in quantity, first in the usual format, then in a smaller format for easier concealment and smuggling. They started to arrive in England hidden in the bottoms of boxes, in bolts of fabric, in sacks of flour. The Bishop of London decided to buy up all the copies of the book in existence, the entire press run waiting to be smuggled, and burn them. Tyndale used the money to pay off his debts and print another edition with some corrections he had contemplated.

In 1536 Tyndale was captured by agents of Henry VIII and put to death, first strangled, then his bones burned to prevent his resurrection.

But printed books were not so easily suppressed. When Henry VIII had differences with the church, he decided to have his own translation done, printed, and placed in churches, where they could be chained to the altar and read to the people by the sort of reliable priests he hadn't already killed. How well this worked my be judged by the fact that England was to have a civil war a few generations later in which the king was found guilty of treason and put to death.

Now the Great Firewall of China attempts to chain the word again. Will it work this time? Perhaps long enough for those making this choice to retire. Printing made it hard to suppress speech because it produced so many copies at such a low price. How will the electronic word shape us? It produces copies at greater speed and lower price, but it also can hunt down the source of subversive speech in a way the printing press never could. We cannot know how this experiment will end. In more open societies, it is disruptive as well.

It removes bars to entry in publishing news and opinions and at the same time disaggregates the package that is the newspaper, stories linked on other sites, classifieds moving to Craig's List. That package was not just news, it was also the ads and subscriptions that paid for gathering the news. Will the disaggregated newspaper employ as many people to gather the news? Unlikely. The news media in America has lost about 25% of its journalists in the last ten years as the money to support them has disappeared. In addition to more opinion, the press of the future will do less reporting

The new technology will remove those local monopolies that newspapers tended to have in the late 20th century, when few cities had more than one newspaper. Such newspapers had to defend their objectivity to present themselves as honest brokers of the truth, else someone might wish to start another paper in town. In a fragmented media, they will instead compete for niches in the marketplace. Their point of view will be their stock in trade, their opinions will attract their audiences. We may see the return of the poison pen, of a cacophony competing voices instead of stately grey ladies like the New York Times. It is changing our politics, though it's hard to tell how much of the change is caused by the new way of publishing. Certainly a public served by a press unconcerned with objectivity or balance will tend to arouse the passions of their public more readily than those careful old newspapers that sought to be viewed as neutral.

We already see how more channels of television news has made neutrality less salable. This too will change, as networks become faster and video moves on to the net. The more fragmented the press, the smaller a unit of the public each unit of the press will compete for, and those smaller units will be defined by a smaller world view. How will our world change when people don't have to know the same facts, but can instead take in only what they wish to hear?

It may be a world in which a boring topic like how our health insurance market is structured becomes a part of a culture war, with bricks thrown through windows and congressmen threatened with death. Or perhaps sweet reason will triumph, and all will be well. And blue monkeys will fly out my butt.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: