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?

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:

Screening Room: Sci-Fi Films You Need To See

The future is past in 'La Jetee' (Criterion Collection)

The future is past in ‘La Jetee’ (Criterion Collection)

Everybody’s definition of unknown films differs, based on their depth of knowledge. This is particularly so with science fiction. Some people delve into the genre like moles and others avoid it at all costs. There are those who barely know anything past Star Wars and others who can cite the full Gamera canon chapter and verse.

scifimovieguide1To illuminate the multitudinous discoveries found in the update I did for newly released Sci-Fi Movie Guide, the team at Barnes & Noble Review very kindly ran this short piece of mine where I make a few suggestions for some less-remembered but still worthy sci-fi films.

“Way, Way Out There: The 10 Greatest Science-Fiction Movies You Haven’t Seen” is at The Barnes & Noble Review here.

 

Now, a moment from The Apple:

 

And, lest we forget, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension:

Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

ww1trench

Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

Writer’s Corner: On Style

For a writer, having a style helps define you. Although Strunk and White and other minders of the literary store have long pushed for the plain and unadorned style that disappears on the page, numerous writers make their name by being absolutely idiosyncratic and unique in how they string words together. Ernest Hemingway might have striven for simplicity, but it was always his type of simplicity. You couldn’t mistake it. Sometimes, this is how careers are made.

Andre Malraux, circa 1974.

Andre Malraux, circa 1974.

Nevertheless, style can be dangerous in the wrong hands. See Anthony Daniels’ aside in his review for the New Criterion of Stephen Parker’s new Bertolt Brecht biography, which clocks in at 600 closely-typeset pages:

The writer of a very long book should at least be a good prose stylist, but unfortunately Professor Parker is not such a stylist. As Sartre said of Malraux, he has a style, but it is not a good one.

In other words, if you’re going to write so that the reader notices, make sure it’s worth their while.

Writer’s Corner: Novel Writing Month Has Already Started

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

Every year, a small but intensely committed band of writers try to ensure that November is known for something besides candy-hangover and Christmas dread. November is also known as National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the dedicated), to at least a few.

The basic idea is to write a 50,000-word manuscript in just 30 days. Last year, over 310,000 people apparently took part. It’s more than just an idea, the NaNoWriMo group offers writing spaces and the occasional pep talk, as well as ways to get together with your fellow scriveners.

Maybe you’ve got a novel in you, maybe you don’t. Either way, churning out 50,000 words in a month (that’s about 7 double-spaced pages a day) will at least give you an idea of whether you have what it takes. Better get started; after all, it’s already the 2nd.