Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bulfinch's Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch (1959)

Before I review this wondrous work, I should tell you what qualifies, to my mind, as a great book. First and last is the writer's command of the language. I relish books whose authors, above all, know how to string words together in such a way as to create a kind of music, whose prose, because they're so well crafted, I have to resist rereading aloud. I realize that's a stringent demand. Keep in mind, that's my ideal, not my minimum requirement. 

Still, I'm unreasonable in this area, since, let's face it, most writers can't be as good at their craft as, say, Robertson Davies, Nabokov, Colleen McCullough, Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Mary Stewart, Dickens, Kipling, Conrad, Jane Austen, or Graham Greene, and, true, I shouldn't hold all writers to such standards. I concede that point. Nevertheless, I'll give a superbly written book up to four out of five stars, regardless plot, characters, or, in the case of non-fiction, subject matter. For example, I'm currently reading a book called The Beautiful People. It's about the history of fashion design, a subject I'd care nothing about if it weren't for the terrific prose by the book's author Marylin Bender.

The second thing I look for with regards to fiction is characters. They must be unforgettable, believable, and interesting, characters like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), Sherlock Holmes, Thomas Covenant, Ignatius J. Rielly (A Confederacy of Dunces), Ichabod Crane (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), and Tom Sawyer.

And last, though almost equally important, is the educational aspect of a work. By that I mean all sorts of things from learning a host of new words or terms to general information I didn't know about a particular region or period in history. If, say, a character has a profession the writer explores, or if the story takes place in a country foreign to my experience so that I learn something about its societal mores or customs, its imports and exports, I'm pleased. Time well spent. Words and or references I have to look up, techniques that intrigue me, and so on, prejudice me in favor of the book and the author. Exposed to new things, I learn, thereby increasing my vocabulary and my knowledge base.

I don't mean to suggest that I can't enjoy what Jeeves would describe as “light, attractive reading.” After all, ultimately I read for pleasure. I enjoy mystery, romance, and humor as well as the next casual or general reader. Much like an insipid pop song or a fattening pastry, transient diversions, provided they're enjoyed in moderation, have their place. And despite being what many might regard as a literary snob, I can relax and plunge into a forgettable tale for the mere sake of escapism as easily as any other literary pleasure seeker. So yes, I'll read most anything, even if the author isn't concerned with enlightening or challenging me. But such books don't especially excite me. They certainly aren't the sorts of books I'd recommend.

That said, if a writer can meet all three of the above criteria – exceptional prose, interesting characters (real or imagined), and insightful, informative content – a glorious combination ensues I can't resist blogging about.

Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867) achieves all three of these things in his celebrated publication Bulfinch's Mythology. The book actually combines three volumes – The Age of Fable (1855), which covers the Greek, Roman, and Norse myths; The Age of Chivalry (1858), which deals principally with King Arthur and his noble knights; and The Legends of Charlemagne (1863), my least favorite and the shortest of the three.

I'm not overstating the relevance, importance, or influence of this material when I say the stories herein comprise the bedrock of Western Civilization. Our culture owes a great debt to these tales of antiquity. From classifications in botany and medicine, astrology and astronomy, the arts – statues, paintings, literature, film – the stories of ancient gods and heroes have impacted generations for centuries. 

Sure, Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, Byron, Euripides, et al, all of whom either wrote extensively about, or referenced liberally from, these archetypes and their adventures, are indispensable to our classic library of masterpieces. But that's not even the half of it. Consider the staggering array of references and derivations, apart from the constellations, we take for granted. Themes (Justice) held “aloft a pair of scales” hence monuments to Lady Justice on the steps of some of our courts and university campuses. Mercury (Hermes) who carried the “rod entwined with two serpents,” called the caduseus, is to this day the insignia for the medical profession.

Words in our modern English language such as Odin (spelled Woden) gave us the word Wednesday. Thursday is derived from Thor. Halcyon from Halcyone, as well as the flower hyacinthus. Mentor; Somnambulism and somnolent from Somnus (the personification of sleep); morphine from Morpheus; the story of Echo and thence our use of the same word in the same context, arachnid from the story of Arachne; Narcissus; Melancholy; Meander; Cornucopia

The prefix for panic is derived from Pan. The expressions “Bellerophnic letters” and “Penelope's web” are likewise derived from ancient myths. An an aside, Sting, in the 1980s pop rock group The Police, refers in the song Wrapped Around Your Finger to “Scylla and Charybdis.”

If I ever get a pet, it'll be a dog, and I shall name him Argus. When Ulysses returns from his Odyssey, which, remember, is the voyage he embarks upon after his long years at war near the walls of Troy, his faithful dog, now an octogenarian in dog years, who's been awaiting his return, can at last expire.

... soon as he perceived
Long-lost Ulysses nigh, down fell his ears
Clapped close, and with his tail glad sign he gave
Of gradulation, impotent to rise,
And to approach his master as of old.
Ulysses, noting him, wiped off a tear
Unmarked.
Then his destiny released
Old Argus, soon as he had lived to see
Ulysses in the twentieth year restored.” (pp. 203 – 204)

Many of the geographical place names of that epoch are still in use today: the Ionian Sea named after Io; Athens named after Athena, Media therefrom Media in Asia, Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) named after Helle; Cape Palinurus from the character Palinurus. The river Acis from the story of Galatea and Acis. And let us not forget the Olympic games (or the Olympics) derived from the word Olympus, the fabled abode of the Greek gods.

Some of the heroes – Theseus, Jason, Hercules – are semi historical. One story in particular offers the reader a glimpse into the rich metaphors often used by the ancients to relate facts or truths in spectacular ways. Achelous, the river god, recounts the wrestling match he and Hercules engaged in together for the love of a fair maiden named Dejanira. Achelous took on the shape of a great serpent and then, when that proved vain against Hercules, assumed the form of a bull. But he was still no match for Hercules who threw Achelous to the ground and broke off one of his horns. “The Naiads took it,” Achelous recounts, “consecrated it, and filled it with fragrant flowers. Plenty adopted my horn and made it her own, and called it cornucopia.”

The ancients point out elsewhere that “Achelous was a river that in seasons of rain overflowed its banks. When the fable says Achelous loved Dejanira, and sought a union with her, the meaning is that the river in its windings flowed through part of Dejanira's kingdom.” Considered to have taken the form of a snake due to these windings and to a bull because, during its course, it roared and brawled, Achelous, when overflowed, was thwarted when Hercules labored to impose canals and embankments, thereby cutting off its horn. No longer subject to overflow, the lands became fertile, hence the horn of plenty. (pp. 144 – 146)

I can't help but wonder, of all the stories of the Old Testament – Jonah and the fish, Samson and Delilah, Noah and the Ark, The Tower of Babel – how many of them follow a similar vein. Even if such stories aren't factually accurate, I suspect they harbor metaphorical truths our modern minds, preoccupied with the literal, often lack the ability to discern. Whatever the answer, those same stories undoubtedly deal in poetic truths no less meaningful than the modern facts science insists on, poetic truths about human frailty, courage, despair, humility, and faith, among other virtues and vices.

And that's only the first part of this three part masterpiece known as Bulfinch's Mythology. Part two, The Age of Chivalry, covers the romances of King Arthur, his noble knights – Sirs Gawain, Launcelot, Tristram, Perseval, Galahad, Bohort – the Lady of the Lake, and of course Guenever and Merlin. Also included is a captivating summary of Malory's Le Morte d'Author.

Bulfinch's writing style is superb. The stories, though more exhaustive than Edith Hamilton's work Mythology, which I enjoyed, are still all too brief. Despite their brevity, however, they're precious marvels. Betimes harrowing, often mystical, and always captivating. Yes, I'm giving this book five out of five stars. But to adequately stress this book's importance, I'll go one step further, though with the tip of my tongue against my inner cheek. Five out of five stars here means if you don't read this book, you're dead to me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Love Affair with Books

I wasn't always an avid reader. As a child and a young teen, the only time I cracked open a book was when my brother and I misbehaved, since, as punishment, our mother would force us to memorize specific chapters from the book of Psalms. Books in our home were shelf decor, neither springboards for the imagination nor educational resources. My scant reading meant poor reading skills which in turn meant scant reading. This vicious cycle kept me away from books and in front of the cathode ray.

School was no different. Because I abhorred the public school environment, I resisted instruction. And not applying myself meant consequently learning next to nothing. It wasn't until after high school that I realized it wasn't knowledge I despised but the imposed regimen, a regimen that determined precisely when and what to memorize.

This attitude changed when I turned eighteen. Eligible to vote and registered for selective service, I took inventory of my ignorance under the tutelage of the public school system and discovered I was, intellectually speaking, an idiot.

Meanwhile, I'd listened to the vague declarations of friends and family on the political and religious hot button issues of the day – animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, God. While intrigued, I remained clueless about how to make sense of it all. I wasn't about to oblige popular opinion for the sake of acceptance or validation any more than I'd take an opposing stance merely to appear independent.

Instead, I wanted to know on what basis one position was more reasonable or legitimate than another. Unfortunately, neither friends, family, nor the clergy were much help. Despite their convictions, these people appeared to have never explored these issues beyond casual conversations among those with whom they already agreed. 

Though I couldn't have articulated my dilemma at the time, I sought an assurance beyond the flippant proclamations and bumper sticker slogans of my peers and elders, a method or a criterion with which to gauge the merits of a claim to determine which position offered the most rational thesis. 

Then, either nineteen or twenty, at a mutual friend's birthday party, I met a man nearly a decade my senior who, over the course of a pointed interaction, demonstrated such an exacting, sober, insightful method for making sense of things that I was both encouraged and thrilled.

We shared some common interests and were soon meeting for lunch. In no time I discovered I had little more to offer than my rugged good looks, overly inquisitive nature, and self contradictions. He, instead of dismissing me for the fool I was and recommending I go play in traffic, listened to my conundrum. Once he'd casually dissected what at first blush appeared complicated until it rendered up its secrets, I had to know his method. But, God bless him, rather than telling me what ideology to adopt, he pointed me to the writing material that addressed my questions – newspaper columns, magazine articles, and essays on a host of political and philosophical issues we'd discussed, both for and against a given subject. I was curious enough to bite, and it’s with a proud heart, a moist cheek, and a bruised ego that I confess his passive prompting led me to embark on a life-altering journey for which I remain eternally grateful.

What began as modest curiosity blossomed into an insatiable inquisitiveness. I found myself engaged in a fierce race toward that elusive prize known as illumination. I still recall, in my twenties, moistening my pupils with Visine to combat my sore, dry eyes, and popping Bayer or Bufferin tablets as though they were Flintstones Chewables to minimize the headaches, all the while sitting up in bed under the buttery glow of lamplight reading until dawn.

I’d become the solitary bibliophile, having embarked on an ambitious journey I’d privately dubbed Making Up For Lost Time. Soon my self-imposed reading marathons became what might best be described as an epistemological pilgrimage. In a year, I'd assumed the title autodidact, an amateur scholar whose only stipend was the occasional pearl of wisdom gleaned from the printed word. Consequently, I'd graduated from articles and essays to books on general, religious, political, and moral philosophy as if my soul depended on it.

In this way I learned first hand what can never be communicated to the passive reader, namely that the written word is the only medium offering the best opportunity for providing a measured, exhaustive examination of anything, the only encompassing process for engaging one's imagination, encouraging one's thoughts, and fully evoking one's emotions.

Within roughly six years, not only had I more than compensated for my previous academic career of indifference in the public school system, I’d discovered an exciting literary world that reduced all other forms of entertainment to table scraps. For me, the public libraries and bookstores had become the consummation of humanity’s crowning achievements – enshrining our noblest thoughts, our deepest insights, and our most enduring creations.

Yet like any adventurer embarked on an expedition of discovery, I often felt alone, sometimes with little more than guilt to spur me onward, guilt over my earlier years of academic neglect. 

Over time this immersion into literature fostered an ugly contempt for my contemporaries. I confess I grew alienated from most of my friends and family. They were preoccupied with pop culture. I wasn't. As adults, they spent as much time watching TV as I had as a teen. I gradually grew to detest television and treated friends and family, depending on my mood, with either pity or scorn. 

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as if I pined for a metropolis where everyone took a sledgehammer to their flat screens, visited museums, and liberally quoted Oscar Wilde. Unlike the vegetarian who decides her friends are going to Hell for eating animals, I didn't consider my coevals damned, but I knew they were not only missing out on one of life's greatest pursuits and pleasures, they were depriving themselves of what really mattered – knowledge, insight, clarity of thought. 

This heartache tainted my joy when I considered the suspicion my passion for reading provoked in others. Unless I was willing to endure a summary of their diet or what happened during the most recent season of their favorite TV show, material for conversation became increasingly limited. And those who viewed my pursuits with indifference, who showed no interest for my passion, caused me to only recede further into my solitude and study. But I couldn't abandon my passion for books any more than a lover can deny love. Because, truly, at this point, my love for language, for clear expression, knew no equal.

The relationship between writer and reader, the gratification that comes from glimpsing, and, dare I say, occasionally comprehending, an idea or a truth, remains my dharma. Fellow avid readers know. Even in a crowded coffeehouse, we read (for all practical purposes) alone. And though music and other ambient sounds might attend our immersion, in this self-imposed cell of solitary confinement, our minds and thoughts are focused. 

What we grasp as a result can seldom be communicated. In turn, we learn how far superior this medium is to all other forms for conveying unforgettable stories and any ideology worth thinking or talking about. To weigh and explore the innermost thoughts and feelings of some of the brightest minds articulating their imagination and purpose in print knows no equal. 

Today my fidelity to books has given me a greater appreciation for the things these books reveal, and this has made meaningful to me ideas as well as virtues I might never have otherwise considered significant or relevant.

Someone once wrote that books are the only things you can buy that make you richer. Books, for me at least, are the most treasured of inanimate objects. What words convey and stir in the hearts of readers confirms their power and their impact. I'll always regard them, or more specifically their authors, as the best storytellers, priests, sages, and guides. They continue to provide insight and pleasure I'll forever cherish.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...