Department of Holiday Reading: November 26, 2014

Readers’ Corner: Books and Ideas Never Die

'The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD' by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)

‘The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD’ by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)

In Tom Stoppard’s masterful 1993 play Arcadia, a young woman is overwhelmed by an existential grief after reading of the destruction of antiquity’s great library of Alexandria:

…can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library! … How can we sleep for grief?

arcadia1In response, her tutor tries to remind her that in the end, nothing can be lost, regardless of the calamity, because that’s not how life works:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe…

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Department of Weekend Reading: November 22, 2014

reading1

New in Theaters: ‘Happy Valley’

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in 'Happy Valley' (Music Box Films)

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in ‘Happy Valley’ (Music Box Films)

The newest documentary from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) is another troubling story about an insular culture reacting with fury to a scandal that threatens their self-created mythology.

I reviewed Happy Valley as part of the DOC NYC festival. It’s opening this week in limited release; my review of Happy Valley (as well as the D.C. punk documentary Salad Days, which also screened at DOC NYC) is at PopMatters:

If Amir Bar-Lev’s superb Happy Valley is any indication, the arguments in the Penn State community over the Jerry Sandusky scandal will not be ending anytime soon. As with most scandals that flare into the national consciousness amid intersecting nodal points of volatility (regional identity, sexual crimes, sports), what actually happened ultimately has little to do with how it plays out with public opinion. Just so, the film sidelines some of the who-what-when to examine the lingering dust clouds of disappointment, rage, and conspiratorial invective…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Grim Children’s Stories

It seems like the youth of America are about the only ones still reading these days. According to NPR:

Young Americans are more likely to have read a book in the past year than their older counterparts, a new study finds. According to data from the Pew Research Center, “88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.” The findings go against the oft-repeated narrative that the Internet is degrading the reading habits of the young (those millennials supposedly Snapchatting themselves into a cultureless stupor). In another surprise, people under 30 were also more likely to say that there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet.”

Bookstores are filled with new and ever-burgeoning series of novels targeted at the young adult market, not to mention slightly simplified versions of nonfiction bestsellers like Unbroken. In other words, this is a big and potentially growing market.

grimm_talesAlso, young readers are generally being given more latitude in terms of the subject matter deemed appropriate.  Jack Zipes’ new translation of Grimms’ fairy tales from Princeton University Press makes a point of including some “gruesome” additions previously unknown to modern readers:

How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat.

Whether or not any children will be read these as bedtime stories remains to be seen. But in any case, if you’re looking to sell books, write with the youth market in mind.

In Books: ‘Against Football’

(Library of Congress)

(Library of Congress)

Steve Almond is one of those overly talented writers whose style ranges from the literary short story to pop cultural/ethical commentary in the Chuck Klosterman vein. So, in one sense, the fact that Almond has written a book on sports shouldn’t be surprising. On the other hand, it’s a passionate work about a subject he cares deeply about. That’s the thing about football fanatics; they hide in plain sight.

themillions-cover1My essay on his newest book, “To Hell with All That Guilty Love: On Steve Almond’s ‘Against Football’,” ran in The Millions yesterday:

Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray.

In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny”…

Here’s Almond debating football with the great Greg Easterbrook at the Politics and Prose bookstore:

Department of Weekend Reading: November 14, 2014

reading1