June 28, 2007

Which It's A Gratuitous Literary Confession, Ain't It?


I am currently rereading Patrick O'Brian's Master & Commander, the first of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. I haven't kept close track, but this must be the seventh or eighth time now.

On the one hand, given the limited amount of time at my disposal for pleasure reading, I feel vaguely guilty that I should be returning to such a well-known book instead of branching out to something new and different. On the other hand, a well-written novel is like a well-written symphony - something new reveals itself each time. Furthermore, one should no more refuse to reread a book because one already knows the plot than refuse to listen to a symphony again because one already knows the melodies: the joy is in taking in the words or notes themselves, not in arriving at the conclusion.

Por ejemplo, I found myself chuckling anew over this delightful paragraph in which Jack Aubrey, never a scholar in his own youth, is scolding his young midshipmen about keeping up with their studies at sea:

"You can write decently, I suppose? Otherwise you must go to school to the clerk." They hoped so, sir, they were sure; they should do their best. But he did not seem convinced and desired them to sit down on that locker, take those pens and these sheets of paper, to pass him yonder book, which would answer admirably for them to be read to out of from.

O'Brian's dancing from the first person to the third person voice and then back again to a kind of middle ground is masterful enough, but I just love how he lets the end of the paragraph get away from him in gentle mockery of Jack's rather hypocritical fussing. It's a grace note, a throw away, but charming nonetheless. And the book (indeed, most of the series) is crammed with such gems (not all of them humorous, of course, but rayther covering the whole gammut of emotions). Why on earth would someone not want to come back repeatedly to mine for them?

If I decide to press on and reread the entire cycle, however, I'm going to have to be careful about pacing. The last two or three times through, I tried to read too much, too fast and got burned out. This time, I think I'll be rigid about reading two or three other books in between each Aubrey/Maturin story so that this doesn't happen again.

CUE THE FREAKY MUSIC YIPS from Steve-O: That's spooky....on a whim last night I pulled down Master and Commander and started reading the durn thing again too.

I've been meaning to do more library blogging as of late; heck, I've been meaning to do a lot more blogging on a wide number of things lately but, first rule of light blogging club being what it is, I'll have to keep my trap shut.

Some recent high and low lights:

The Second Horseman, by Kyle Mills was a great pool side waiting for the kids to get done with swim practice read. Total time committment: two days of practices. Highlights: if this were a Hollywood pitch meeting for the movie (and if there's any justice given the crap being pumped out of Hollywood these days there should be one, here), the pitch would be something like this: the fast paced national security ticking bomb thriller tension of 24, but with the central role being played by a world class jewel thief who is a jewel thief version of Ari Gold, from Entourage. Just your standard story featuring an ex-CIA Bill Buchanan type who has to bust the Jeremy Piven-played jewel thief (who, of course, he had framed to be sent up in the first place) out of prison, so they can hijack a tractor-trailer load of cash sent daily from Vegas to the Federal Reserve bank in San Francisco so they can use the money to buy some Soviet nukes off the black market to take them out of circulation. Jailarity ensues, as they say. Three orgles out of four.

Harry Potter and the Ginormous Mound of Marketing Tie-ins, by J.K. Rowling. I re-read Harry Potter 2 and 6 in anticipation of The Deathly Hallows coming out next month. I almost wish there was a way that we could slip these books to Robbo---maybe a Confundus charm, or something---without Robbo knowing what they are from all the marketing hype over the years. Truth be told, I think Robbo would really like them a lot.

I'm not sure how well they will hold up over time, though, once the plot of The Deathly Hallows emerges. Will the popularity of these books fade over time, once first time readers to the series know the ultimate resolution, in much the same way that the original Star Wars movies now kind of suck in light of knowing the full story? Or, will they become like C.S. Lewis' Narnia series which only go richer each time you read them, knowing the beautiful, sad, tragic yet deeply resounding conclusion?

The bone I have to pick with J.K. Rowling--or maybe it's intentional, and therefore something to credit her with--is the complete absence of the humanities from the course of education at her magical school. The wizarding world as she presents it is completely bereft of art and music of their own creation which is not derivative of the creations of the non-magical world. In many respects the wizarding world---or, at the very least, wizard Britain---is a world which never really left the medieval: they never went through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the revolutions of capitalism, industrialism, and Darwinism. Now, I can see how a number of our readers would probably say a combination of the last three aint bad (and certainly the Shire of Tolkein was Rousseauian presentation of Britain minus the last three), how many of us would want to live in a world without the humanism and individualism and rationalism and science that were the crowning achievements of the first two? Not me, for one.

The first book---and I have a gut hunch the last book---pivots on the character never actually met by the reader of Nicolas Flamel, a historical figure with a long history of being used by authors as a representative of the obsession with alchemy. To me, the series rises and falls with the fate of another obsessed alchemist born several centuries after Flamel lived: Isaac Newton. Newton turned away from alchemy in the end and embraced science and the scientific method, and with it the principles of rationalism and free inquiry. Rowling's wizards remain profoundly uncurious about the nature of their world, and the small few who inquire are kept hidden away within the Department of Mysteries, their work kept secret. The Wizards, from the fragments that Rowling provide, turned within themselves in Europe at least at exactly the time the Europeans reached out to understand the world, the universe, and the place of human beings within it.

Whether intentionally or not, Rowling has shown us a world within a world free from imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, religion and industrialism---yet it is a society racked profoundly with racism and slavery, governed oppressively without any pretense of due process, the rule of law, equality, or democracy, and in a world without great art, sculpture, literature, poetry, dance, or music of its own.

They have Dumbledore. We have DaVinci, Newton, Smith, Darwin, Einstein, Watson, Dickens, and Neil Armstrong.

Posted by Robert at June 28, 2007 10:40 AM | TrackBack

I'm a big fan of rereading, though people seem to fall into either the pro or con category, with very little middle ground. To me, I'd no sooner have one conversation with a new acquaintance and then never speak again then not reread an enjoyed book. (Though some books, like some new acquaintances, do merit the once and never again treatment.) Further conversations are nearly always bound to reveal new, previously unplumbed depths during delightfully shared hours.

Though I will also admit to the need for caution with series. Burnout can happen. But then again, that happens with people sometimes, too. :)

Posted by: beth at June 28, 2007 10:53 AM

I once had a conversation with a firm partner about rereading: he had a policy of never reading a book more than once. I still remember the moment in which we gazed at each other in utter mutual incomprehension.

Of course, he seemed to favor reading trash off the best-seller list, so perhaps there was some justice to his position. I certainly agree that some books simply don't merit a second look.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at June 28, 2007 11:07 AM

I can't quite put my finger on what it is about the books that don't do it for me (the films are fine as fairly enjoyable eye-candy).

The whole idea of the magical heredity is as off-putting as the whole idea of midichlorians in Star Wars. It makes the Wizard society unattainable for us poor muggle shlubs.

Posted by: Gary at June 28, 2007 01:24 PM

Except...the heredity isn't a 100% sure thing. Wizard/witch pairings can and do produce non-magical offspring (called Squibs) and Hermione, the hands-down most talented witch at Hogwarts in Harry's time, is purely Muggle born. In fact, the whole idea of "pureblood" vs. not is (I think) more the crux of Voldemort's crusade than any world domination power grabs.

Posted by: beth at June 28, 2007 01:36 PM

Except Gary, that magical ability pops out in the must mundane of families - the Grangers or the Evans for example.

I find the interactions of the Hermione, Harry, Ron and Dumbledore most interesting when they are talking about the moral implications of an action. Raised as "muggle" both H & H have finer moral compass than Ron and you get the feeling that Ron's parents are more open minded because of Arthur's exposure to muggles and muggle ideas. Dumbledore also has had deep exposure to muggles and muggle ideas as evidenced by his ability to interact seemlessly with muggles.

Posted by: Taleena at June 28, 2007 02:00 PM

First I have to quibble with the non-capitalism part of the rant on Rowling's works. The government is routinely described as bunch of bungling idiots, with a few exceptions like Alistair Moody, you mostly get Fudge (head-in-the-sand), Umbridge (can do anything under color of authority) Tonks (just plain clumsy) etc. Add to that the favorable treatment given to Fred and George and their business, and the fact that no one seems to be on the dole. (Even Filch has a job, although he doesn't like it much. And somewhere or other Arrabella Figg - another squib - was described as having a thriving business breeding kneazles.) Olivander, Fortescu, Rosemerta at Three Broomsticks, even Tom at the Leaky Cauldron all seem to be small business owners.

And I don't think its free from Nationalism. Look at the attitude of the Irish before the World Cup (as voiced by Seamus Finnegan's mother). It just doesn't enter the consciousness of Harry.

But then the whole thrust of the series (one of the main ones anyway) is the examination of race-based prejudice as couched in terms of the muggle-born/pure-bred conflict.

Rowling had to leave some things out, or the books would be even longer. And having left them out of the first 2, which were clearly as short as possible as mandated by the editors, it would be hard to add them later. Though music is described as being important culturally (via the weird sisters etc.)

Posted by: Zendo Deb at June 28, 2007 02:42 PM

Zendo--On the economics, I think the key is Gringots, the Goblin Bank. From the very brief glimpse of it, one gets the definite feeling that it is a pre-capitalistic banking house. You get no sense or feel that it's acting as anything other than an elaborate and well-guarded storehouse, rather than a source of economic vitality. George and Fred (financed by Harry's Tournament winnings, and their own forays into gambling) is a classic merchant operation, but that doesn't lead necessarily to capitalism. Part of the problem or the puzzle here is that the type of magic that Rowling creates addresses the issue of scarcity: if charms and transfiguration can be used to create basic necessities, does that eliminate the need for enterprise?

As for the issue of music and humanities, the Weird Sisters (and the variation of the band--kind of a Warlock-ey Gary Glitter---in the Goblet of Fire movie) are derivative of muggle culture, as is the music they listen to on Christmas Eve at the Burrow in Book Six (Celestina Warbeck?) And what's the device they listen to it on? An enchanted old radio set. My beef with the wizard world on this is: hey, fancy wizards, where's your Mozart? Your Bach? Your Hayden? Let alone your Ray Charles. All that power to defy the laws of quantum physics, and you spend the last ten centuries hiding your lights for fear of the Muggles. As beautiful as is the image of the enchanted ceiling in the Great Hall, is it any match for the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel?

As for nationalism, I was thinking more in the sense that the wizards seem to have avoided their version of wars predicated on nationalism. That's in their favor. But my question is this: is Rowling presenting this as a tradeoff: human history without nationalistic wars, capitalism, industrialism, but at the price of the humanities, science, and technology?

Posted by: Steve the LLamabutcher at June 28, 2007 05:36 PM

OK I will give you the economics, but you have to remember the target audience - especially for books one and two - were pre-teen kids. Not very many books aimed at adults get the ins and outs of free markets right. (I hate the term "capitalism." It was coined by Marx to be evil, as opposed to the wonderful communism.)

Find a book - a pop-culture novel that is - that correctly describes the function of a stock market, how shareholder meetings are run, who controls the daily running of the business, etc.

When pop-culture describes free market industrialism, it is usually painted as "those evil capitalists." Think of the recent remake of the Manchurian Candidate. It isn't the evils of communist dictatorships (as in the original) but those heartless capitalists. With kids literature (and movies) it is even worse.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at June 28, 2007 08:23 PM

And as for re-reading... Ulysses, by James Joyce is written in a circle. The first half of the first sentence is on the last page.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at June 28, 2007 08:25 PM

ZD---Neal Stephenson?

Posted by: Steve the LLamabutcher at June 28, 2007 10:04 PM

Not familiar with Neal Stephenson.

Actually "Time Enough for Love" or "The Adventures of Lazarus Long" by Heinlein, does contain a fairly accurate depiction of banking.... on about 2 pages. (I don't remember - quite - which book it was.)

But my point was, if you are writing a book for 9, 10 and 11 year olds (or there abouts), you aren't going to go into the arcanum of international or investment banking.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at July 1, 2007 01:56 AM