It is, of course, no surprise that I am an avid reader, otherwise I'd be in the wrong business. I like blogging about my reading because it gives me the chance to express my opinions without having to write a formal or complete review. This archive contains entries pertaining to some of my extra-curricular reading. On the side bar of the main page is a list of my recent readings.
I’d been wanting to read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization for some time. Although I’m a medievalist, I’m not a Celticist, so this was quite an interesting read for me. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I was of course quite aware of the important influence of Irish monasticism — Bede, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, admits so in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Cahill’s essential argument is that the Irish were instrumental in preserving and transmitting classical culture and learning (including Christianity) from the ancient world of Rome (and to some extent Greece) to the medieval world and thus the modern world. As he argues, ‘Civilization’ just manages to hang on on the very edge of the world which was overrun by barbarians. I did find that his opinion of late Roman culture was unfortunately low. He didn’t seem to think much of late Latin writers like Statius and the Gallo-Roman writers. But this is a common opinion, even if not entirely justified.
Much of the book is concerned with the story and importance of Saint Patrick, the details of which I was only partially aware of. As chance would have it, I was reading the book at a very oportune time as I started it just before Saint Patrick’s Day. As Cahill points out, the Irish don’t always receive the recognition they deserve in the course of Western history. As a medievalist, I was already aware of the importance of the Irish, but I do imagine that outside of such circles, their contribution is not so well known.
I find Cahill’s writing very captivating. His telling of the stories is quite moving, and his analysis, even if one doesn’t always agree, is very thought provoking. Just today I finished reading the second book in his Hinges of History series, The Gifts of the Jews, which I enjoyed maybe even more, perhaps because I knew less about the topic — I’ll write more about that one later. I would certainly recommend the series to anyone with an interest in history and culture. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend starting with How the Irish Saved Civilization or The Gifts of the Jews — I think both would work. All in all, a fascinating series of books about the foundation of Western culture.
First of all, there are some new books on my bed-side reading pile. For my birthday, my wife gave me the three follow-up books to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization (about which I have yet to write): The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. She also gave me Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen as a Father’s Day present. So I have a lot of reading to do!
Next up, Jeffrey Miller’s Murder’s Out of Tune, one in a series of mystery books about a crime-solving cat named Amicus Curiae (‘Friend of the Court’). Having the narrative centred around the cat was in interesting technique, though it seemed a bit precious at times. I’m not sure if Tigger was inspired to go around solving crimes with me either. The novel is set in Toronto, and while I at first found it fun to catch all the Toronto references, I think Miller overdid it a bit — he seemed to revel in the local detail. The plot revolved around the murder of a member of a jazz quartet obviously based on the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The fictional quartet was led by the piano player who received all the fame in spite of the fact that the alto sax player wrote their most famous number, a relationship clearly modelled on Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. I found the writing style a little distracting at times, a little too self-conscious. So all in all, I don’t know if this book is for everyone. If you like cats, if you live or have lived in Toronto (especially if you know the Toronto legal buildings), or if you’re a jazz fan, you might get a kick out of this book, but otherwise I don’t think it will change your life.
The next couple of books on the list, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and M.A.C. Farrant’s Altered Statements, were for one of the classes I was teaching this past term. I hadn’t actually read Mrs Dalloway before; as an undergrad I read To the Lighthouse and some of the Virginia Woolf selections in the Norton Anthology. And I had never heard of M.A.C. Farrant before. Though I didn’t find Mrs Dalloway personally resonant, it’s an excellent book for exemplifying early 20th century prose fiction style and stream of consciousness writing, and I certainly intend to continue to use it in survey classes. As for Farrant, she is a British Columbia-based post modernist writer. Altered Statements is a collection of short narrative pieces bordering on the surreal, sometimes funny, sometimes shocking. While it was an interesting example of post modernism, again I’m not sure that it resonated with me.
Well, that’s all for now. I’ll write more about my reading later.
It occurs to me that I haven’t written about my reading in a while, and I’m several books behind in my sidebar list, so now seems like a good time for a post. One of the books my wife gave me for Christmas was James Burke’s The Knowledge Web. James Burke is, of course, best known for his television documentary series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, and he is also the author of a number of books. He focusses on the history of innovation, how one idea leads to another, often in surprising ways. Here’s an example from one of his previous books (quoted from James Burke’s K-Web site):
Question: How was Napoleon important to the development of the modern computer?
Answer: Napoleon’s troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze. In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper-control looms. This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards. Which get used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer.—From The Pinball Effect, by James Burke, Back Bay Books, 1996
In The Knowledge Web, Burke experiments with a cross-referencing system which functions much like hypertext links, directing the reader from key persons, events, or things to all the other points in the book that discusses that person, event, or thing. It’s sort of like distributing the index throughout the margins of the book. The idea behind this cross-referencing system is to theoretically allow the reader to read the book in a non-linear fashion: at each cross-reference the reader can then jump to one of the other such points in the book, thus following a different path through the web. It’s an interesting experiment, though I don’t imagine many readers would actually flip through the book in a random order that way. But it is interesting to occasionally flip to one of the other points in the book, and of course it’s interesting when the thread folds back on a section you’ve already read. And in any case, it is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book to read, even in a more traditional linear way.
Naturally this interconnected mode of organization would lend itself well to an actual hypertext set up—indeed I think it would work better that way. And that indeed seems to be what James Burke has in mind. His current project is the KnowledgeWeb Project, an electronic database which allows one to explore the various different links and threads.
This book came at a very synchronous moment for me, as I had just come off teaching a course which looked at the relationship between literature and the other areas of the arts and humanities (see my previous entry on this course). Indeed my thinking recently has been very much along these lines, the interconnectedness of all things. To understand a literary work fully, one must undrestand the way it fits in with everything else. But this is detailed topic that deserves a post of its own…
Unsurprisingly, I was given several books for Christmas. I love receiving books, as I’m often given books that I probably wouldn’t buy myself, but which I quite enjoy. And now I know what I’ll be reading over the next little while.
Among the books I got are Murder’s Out of Tune by Jeffrey Miller, a mystery involving a crime-solving cat. As is clear from the sidebar list of readings, I’ve read a number of books like this featuring cat protagonists, so this looks like just the book for me. Thanks go to my parents-in-law for this one. I’ll post some comments on it once I’ve read it.
My wife gave me a number of books, including Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth & Legend, by one of my doctoral committee members, Andy Orchard. This is an excellent reference book, and it will be useful to have a copy of this close at hand. She also gave me a copy of Chickering’s edition of Beowulf, which contains a useful commentary, and Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book often recommended to me. And finally, she gave me two books by James Burke, The Knowledge Web and Twin Tracks, about which/whom I will post more later.
So quite the bonanza of books. I wish I could spend all my time reading…
Having recently seen Sting perform at the ACC, I decided that the next book from my bed-side pile would be Sting’s Broken Music. A dear friend of mine went to meet Sting earlier this year and got an autographed copy of his book, which she very sweetly gave to me knowing what a Sting fan I was.
I was actually a little surprised at how well written the book was. Many first-time writers who are famous for some other persuit don’t come across so well. I found Sting’s book to be quite gripping, if somewhat disturbing at times. He’s certainly a very intelligent man. The book deals mainly with Sting’s life before he became famous, the realities of growing up in the north of England in the 50’s and 60’s and the building of his musical career in the 70’s. I suppose those who aren’t particularly Sting fans won’t be drawn to the book, but it’s actually quite interesting because of the world he writes about.
Reading this book (along with a number of other factors) has certainly made me want to have more music in my life. It’s something I’ve put aside for a number of years now, but I’m coming to realise that sometimes one has to make time for things.
As I mentioned before, the next book on my reading list was No One Noticed the Cat by Anne McCaffrey, pictured above with my cat Tigger. Actually, the only reason I read this book was because my wife, who is a big McCaffrey fan, got it out from the library, and since I’m such a cat fanatic I decided to read it too.
It’s actually more of novella than a novel, and only took me a short amount of time to read. It was reasonably enjoyable and diverting to read, but it did remind me of why I’m not a big fan of such fantasy books. They have no grounding in reality and yet are so clearly patterned after an unreal, romantic notion of a nondescript, mythical past. What turns me off even more is that such books often take themselves far too seriously. And in this case, there wasn’t nearly enough cat in it. I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I did Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, which didn’t take itself too seriously and contained an awful lot of cat.
Last Wednesday, my wife and I went to the Sting concert at the Air Canada Centre (ACC). You can read my wife’s comments about the concert here. The concert was actually a double bill with Annie Lennox, who played an hour-long set before Sting’s hour-and-a-half set.
The opening act was a solo classical guitar performace by Sting’s guitarist Dominic Miller, which was quite good but somewhat lost in the large venue. Though I’m not particularly an Annie Lennox fan, her set was quite enjoyable, particularly the songs I knew and particularly her rockier numbers.
Sting’s portion of the evening very good and demonstrated what an excellent backing band he has — Jason Rebello is a phenominal pianist. Sting performed mainly his solo material, leaning particularly on his more recent albums. Perhaps unsurprisingly he played only three of his Police-era songs — with the large back catalogue he has, it’s hard to get all that much into an hour-and-a-half set. Annie Lennox sang a duet with Sting on his “We’ll Be Together”, which was quite good. Also worthy of mention was the extended jam on “Roxanne”. The sound engineering for the night was rather disappointing, however, as the vocals were rather muddy and overall the volume was too low. In the past I’ve found the sound at concerts at the ACC to be quite good, so I’m not sure why the quality was off this night. I’ve now seen Sting perform four times, and while this wasn’t his best concert in my experience, it was nevertheless quite enjoyable.
Inspired by this concert, I’ve decided that the next book from my bed-side pile will be Sting’s Broken Music, which was given to me by a very dear friend of mine who had gone to meet Sting and got the book signed earlier this year.
Recently I read The Unadulterated Cat, written by Terry Pratchett and illustrated by Gray Jolliffe. It’s an amusing look at what cats get up to, and it contains perhaps the most astute statement I’ve ever read about them:
What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that does it every time.
Definitely a book I would recommend to any cat owner.
Although I’ve now read two Terry Pratchett books (the other being The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents), I’m not really a Pratchett fan (as my wife is) — his writing is very good and I thoroughly enjoyed the two I’ve read, but I still have no burning desire to read more. The main reason I’ve read the two I have is because they are about cats, and anyone who knows me can attest to how devoted a cat owner I am. The book I’m reading now is No One Noticed the Cat by Anne McCaffrey, another of my wife’s favourite authors. Again, I don’t imagine I’ll become an Anne McCaffrey fan; I’m just reading it for the cat.
I think my beloved cat Tigger would definitely qualify as a “real unadulterated cat” according to Pratchett’s definition. Sadly, however, after his vet visit on Monday we got the news that Tigger has been adulterated by FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). Though this doesn’t mean he is in any immediate danger — at the moment he’s perfectly healthy — it does mean that he will have health problems in his future. I don’t think I can express here how distressed I am about this, but I’m sure you can all imagine. Anyway, here’s a picture of Tigger engaging in one of his favourite pursuits — sleeping in a bag:
Although I’ve been rather busy over the last month or so, I have still been managing to find the time for pleasure reading. The last book I wrote about, Invisible Forms, is making the rounds of a number of my friends, so perhaps I’ll hold off on writing more about it until they’ve read it.
Recently I read (or rather re-read) Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green, a book my sister gave me years ago. I was in the mood for Norse mythology, but I also wanted something fairly lightweight, so I pulled this one off my shelf instead of going to the original texts. As Green states in his introduction, “This book is an attempt to present the surviving myths of the Norsemen as a single narrative.” Thus Green draws on the various mythological poems and sagas, often following them word for word, and combines them into one continuous narrative. It’s a good way to get a general sense of the Norse myths, and I would certainly recommend the book for anyone who was looking for just that. Of course there is nothing that can replace the original texts (either in Old Icelandic or in translation), but this is a much easier read. It’s quite a moving, fun, and interesting set of stories, but I’ll not say too much about particular details in case anyone is convinced to read Green’s book (it’s only about 200 pages after all).
People generally know quite a bit about Greco-Roman mythology; it’s very often portrayed in popular forms of entertainment, and it’s a popular course in university (and more often than not, it seems, is taught by my wife). However, few seem to know much about Norse mythology (and no, the Thor comic books don’t count). How many Norse gods can you, dear reader, name?1 I’d love to teach the subject one day, and I think it’s time someone made one of these big-budget films with these stories. Of course it would probably be botched in such an endeavour, but the classicists have put up with that for years, so I’m sure we medievalists can too.
1 Post your answers as a comment and win a cookie!
I’ve just finished reading Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities, a book about paratexts such as introductions, titles, dedications, epigraphs, footnotes, and so forth. It’s quite an interesting and very entertaining read. Jackson is a very witty writer, and his book is quite well researched. Many of the chapters are filled with meta-humour (lots of footnotes in the chapter on footnotes, the chapter on marginalia covered with seemingly handwritten comments). It’s definitely a good book for anyone interested in writing, whether it be for academic purposes or otherwise. I should have read this book while writing my dissertation.
What with all the end-of-term grading I have to do and the upcoming Kalamazoo conference, my head is just not into writing a lengthy post on this very interesting book right now, but perhaps I’ll write a fuller response later.
Last night I went to see the David Hein Band — David being one of my oldest and dearest friends — compete in and win the latest round of the Emergenza Music Festival. Hooray! I guess the next stop is the Canadian finals.
The band was fantastic and I heartily recommend you check out the website which has online tunes and information about upcoming events.
At the pre-show party, I was lucky enough to win a door prize, a copy of The Live of Pi by Yann Martel, which I’ve had recommended to me many times. I love getting books either through chance like this or as gifts! My pile of books for the summer grows!
When I was watching the Leafs hockey game on Friday, I heard the most wonderful new word: skither. Sportscasters are well known for mungling words. In this case, skither seems to be a conglomeration of skitter and slither, and was used to describe the movement of the puck down the ice. What a wonderfully descriptive word!
Later that night, I read in Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms that Gelett Burgess, apparently a very talented neologist, had coined the word blurb, meaning ‘a brief publicity notice, as on a book jacket’, as well as bromide in the sense ‘a platitude’ and goop.
Anyone else have any others to add to the list?
Oh, and the Leafs won Friday’s game (a shutout against the Buffalo Sabers), as well humiliated the Ottawa Senators 6-0 on Saturday night! Go Leafs go!
I’ve added a number of new links on the sidebar to language blogs that I read.
There is an interesting discussion in Language Log (here and here) about case and military prowess in the ancient / early medieval world. As was pointed out, the actual conquerers of Rome were in fact Germanic speakers, specifically Goths, who had nearly as many cases to deal with as there are in Latin. They did, however, have a simpler tense/aspect system. Hmm…
Languagehat has a posting on the Englisc List, an e-mail discussion group about composition in Old English of which I am a lurking subscriber. There is also a review of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything that is rather more critical than my own. Languagehat makes some valid points. I guess my reaction to the book wasn’t as critical because my expectations were somewhat different; I was expecting a light, entertaining history of the OED, and that’s what it is.
Another update on what I’ve been reading lately: I just finished reading Colin Peter Field’s The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris.
As many who know me know (and as is evident from my postings on food & drink), I am a bit of a cocktail aficionado. This is due largely to the fact than my wife and I, along with our former housemate Madhava, have hosted an annual fancy-dress cocktail party (already alluded to here). Since there’s no official Cocktail Party web site yet, you can get a pretty good idea of what these parties are like by looking at the pictures in the appropriate sections of my photo album and Madhava’s photo album.
As a result of this interest, my sister and her husband gave me and my wife the book The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris for Christmas. This book, written by the head bartender of the Bar Hemingway of the Ritz Paris, is not just a list of cocktail recipes; it is in fact more of a history of cocktails at the Ritz Paris.
The book starts off with a brief history of the bar and then moves into a more philosophical discussion of cocktails: the psychology of mixing drinks and the practical techniques involved. Field certainly has his own well-established views on the subject. Then Field gives not only the recipes of cocktails invented at Ritz Paris but also the stories behind their creation. It’s really quite an entertaining read. The focus in mainly on the cocktails invented by Field himself, but also listed are some of the classic cocktails invented at the Ritz Paris, including the Mimosa. I haven’t tried any new cocktails from the book yet, but they look quite good. And the book itself is quite fun and beautifully illustrated.
If you’re interested in more classic cocktails, I would recommend Vintage Cocktails: Authentic Recipes and Illustrations from 1920-1960 by Susan Waggoner and Robert Markel. The classic recipes in this book are accompanied by the history of drinks and illustrations and poster art. Also a good read.
Next up on my list of readings is another book given to me as a gift, Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms, which was given to me and my wife ages ago by my sister-in-law. My wife read it right away, but I’m only now getting around to reading it. One of the nice things about being finished my dissertation is that I’m finally able to catch up on my pleasure reading!
I just finished reading The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester (see the list of readings on the sidebar and this previous posting). As I noted earlier, this is a book about the history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and, as someone who has previously worked at a dictionary (the Dictionary of Old English), I found this book to be particularly congenial. The book is well written and quite interesting; in fact, it has certainly made me want to read Simon Winchester’s previous book on the OED called The Professor and the Madman.
There are a lot of interesting facts in this book that I didn’t know, such as the fact that Henry Sweet, whom I’m familiar with as an important Old English scholar who wrote various OE textbooks, a student’s OE dictionary, and editions of OE texts, was the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Indeed, having read the prefaces to his Early English Text Society edition of King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care and The Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, where he comes across as a fairly ornery fellow, I am not entirely surprised by this revelation. There are also many wonderfully interesting bits of trivia contained in his very entertaining footnotes.
I’m quite the dictionary fanatic and never pass up the opportunity to acquire another. And I find it fascinating to read the history of all these linguistic tools that I use constantly, such as the OED and the editions of the Early English Text Society, a society which was created to supply reliable editions for the OED, and of which I am a member. I really should have been a nineteenth century scholar of language and Old English. In any case, reading The Meaning of Everything has put me in a non-fiction state of mind, so next up is Colin Peter Field’s The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris.
I thought I’d start with a brief discussion of what I’ve been reading lately. My reading interests are rather eclectic actually.
Leaving aside the more research-related work reading, I’ve recently read H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (again), and Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Quite a mix.
In recent months I’ve been on a bit of a Jules Verne / H.G. Wells kick, and, of course, since I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, I often pull my facsimile edition of The Strand Magazine Holmes stories off the shelf from time to time. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the Pratchett novel and would certainly read another Maurice book at the drop of a tiny rat-sized hat, I’m afraid I haven’t been converted into a Pratchett fanatic generally (sorry Aven). In any case, it’s a interesting book about what would happen if animals became intelligent. It’s quite fascinating to see how they develop cognitive abilities such as language.
At the moment I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. As a former research assistant at the Dictionary of Old English and someone with a great interest in lexicography in general, I’ve been enjoying this book enormously. I would certainly recommend the book to anyone, especially Mike, who I know enjoys dictionaries, perhaps almost as much as I do.