Friday, June 25, 2010

You can't take it with you... at least not without a U-Haul

For the first time since I was four years old, I’m moving. I’ll be starting school in September in a city on the other side of the country, which means that instead of shoving unused items into the nether regions of our basement, I actually have to go through my stuff and decide what to pack up and ship, and what to get rid of. While I can part with skirts that haven’t fit in years, or a bouquet of dried roses from some forgotten occasion, I am dreading the prospect of trimming my bookshelf. From history textbooks to photography manuals, poetry books to dictionaries, the letters of T.S. Eliot to travel guides, I want to keep them all.

So why this covetous relationship with books? I’m pretty sure I can find a copy of the complete works of John Milton at a library in Montreal, and considering I’ve never once read through the library discard, why do I want to keep it so much? I think it’s hard to overemphasize the relationship we develop with books. While I may not read The Inheritance of Loss or A Humument on a regular basis, it’s comforting to see them there on the shelf. Each title reminds me of a different experience—either the class where I read the text, the person who gave me the book, or the effect the contents of the book had on my life. They stand in a row almost like a series of family snapshots, each a reminder of an important moment in my life.

I am certainly not the first person to fetishize my book collection. The World of the Book by Des Cowley and Clare Williamson is a well researched and fantastically well designed chronicle of our long and varied obsession with books. The World of the Book is arranged thematically, covering everything from illuminated manuscripts to comic books, addressing everything from the relationship of books and imagination to modernist experimentation. Every page of the book is decorated with vivid, striking images of the texts being discussed. In this way, The World of the Book gives a spectacular tour of the world’s library, letting you paw at a first edition of Ulysses, and then flip through a collection of books from 17th century Japan. The World of the Book is equally well written, with summaries of historical eras and events that are interesting and full of surprises, even if you are familiar with the era or subject being discussed. While I am still only half way through the 247 page volume, I am looking forward to reading this one through to the other cover. This is a problem since the book is on loan from the university library, so if I don’t finish it before I move, I may have to buy a copy and cart it along with all the other books on my shelf. If there’s anything The World of the Book has taught me, it’s that that’s okay.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ye Olde Couch Potato

Most people don’t get super excited at the mention of Medieval English literature. I am among the few people who do, however, and in an effort to proselytize a bit, here are a few fun things that make Middle English Lit a bit more accessible and entertaining. The main ingredient? Television. While using TV to entice audiences to care about medieval literature is, perhaps, a little shameless, medieval lit actually translates quite well to the screen (when in the hands of a good adapter). As for tracking down the two television shows mentioned, some episodes are available on YouTube, some from the public library, and some through sneaky internet means which I, of course, know nothing about.

The first show is the Canterbury Tales series from BBC. This series presents six stories from the Canterbury Tales, each rewritten in a contemporary setting. Popular tales, such as The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Knight’s Tale, are included, as well as some of the less frequently studied stories, such as The Sea Captain’s Tale and The Man of Law’s Tale. Each tale is adapted by a different director, giving each episode a very different feel and atmosphere. The two most daring and successful reinterpretations are The Knight’s Tale and The Pardoner’s Tale. In the original Canterbury Tales, The Knight’s Tale is one of the least interesting, sticking to a medieval romance form, and with little of Chaucer’s bawdy humour. In the BBC series, however, the tale’s two imprisoned knights are replaced with prison inmates, and the princess whom they both love and fight over is replaced with the prison’s literacy instructor. Rather than a stiff and dull romance, this tale is transformed into a moving piece about friendship, love, jealousy, and redemption in the contemporary world. The Pardoner’s Tale, on the other hand, recasts the greedy clan of buffoons on their way to kill Death with three disturbed and violent thieves and rapists. The ring leader, the most despicable of the three, crosses the moral line of even his band of criminals, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the downfall of all three characters. Because Chaucer’s original allegorical tale casts Death as a main, yet absent, character, and because the wild goose chase to find Death would be particularly unbelievable to a contemporary audience, this tale presents significant problems when it comes to adapting the story to a contemporary setting. For this reason, the re-telling of The Pardoner’s Tale is the most impressive, while also the saddest and most disturbing.

The second show is Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. Most people are familiar with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but may not know that one of the sources of the movie’s indisputable awesomeness was co-director Terry Jones’ background as a medievalist. In Medieval Lives, Jones combines his wit and knowledge of the medieval period to produce an engaging and funny look at medieval history, including frequent references to medieval texts. The episodes each focus on a well-known and stereotyped type of medieval person, such as king, minstrel, knight, or damsel, and then proceed to dismantle the stereotype to reveal a more accurate image of each medieval life. The episode about the medieval damsel is one of the best installments, with its nods to the Paston women’s letters, and its neat summary of The Book of Margery Kempe. The episode about kings is also entertaining, with Jones retelling the stories of three King Richards.

In addition to these two shows, BBC also has frequent specials about subjects such as manuscript illuminations or old maps, and the library (in Calgary, at least) has a wealth of other shows and movies about the period. While it may seem a little frivolous to pursue an education in medieval literature by sitting in front of the TV, I think the medium is actually quite fitting. Story tellers, visual representations in texts, and reading out loud to a group were all much more popular in the middle ages, so reproducing early texts and histories for television is actually quite appropriate. So, grab a bottle of mead, pull up a chair, and start watching.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bye-Bye Bookstores

As I’ve gushed before, Budapest is full of great bookstores. Calgary is not. There are a few really good bookstores holding out, like the ever popular Pages, but the variety and mix of bookshops that I remember from the Calgary of my childhood has now been replaced with one monolithic big-box chain. Little shops went first (Sandpiper Books was my personal childhood favourite), and then medium sized stores like McNally Robinson began to close their doors. A Winners now stands ironically where McNally used to be.

There are many problems that come with the homogenous rule of Chindigo. A family trip to the bookstore today found one person griping about the craft section being faddish and geared towards an unskilled and general audience, another complaining about the unavailability of "The Writings of David Thompson," which they believe to be indispensable to a knowledge of Canadian history, and me debating ordering a book through the company’s website instead of just buying the copy I had in my hand, since the online price is about $20 cheaper for the sake of competing with Amazon. Trips to Chindigo almost always result in these kinds of annoyances and disappointments—despite the enormous size of the stores, they never seem to have anything. Worst of all, slowly but surely, we are losing the ability to choose to go elsewhere.

One of the many drawbacks of Chindigo’s dominance only became apparent to me after poking through the bookstores of Budapest. Because I only read Hungarian at about a sixth-grade level, and because what I know of Hungarian literature I have pieced together from random, broad, and flailing Internet searches, I often didn’t know what I was looking for when I arrived at a bookshop. Despite my vague ideas of what I was searching for, I left all the bookstores we visited satisfied, and with a bag full of books. The wide variety of small privately owned stores in the city not only meant that there was a wider choice of books available, but that the people working in these stores actually knew their holdings, and were adept at helping you find a book you didn’t even know you were looking for.

photo source

At the spectacular Irok Boltja, the clerk helped me choose some books that were appropriate for my reading level that she thought would also give me a sense of what literature most Hungarian students would have to be familiar with. Additionally, the bookstore carried books of Hungarian visual poetry, books of fairytales told exclusively through illustrations with no text, and a series of little books focusing on odd little subjects, such as peepholes or pen nibs.

Our visit to a used bookstore was similarly awesome. The bookseller was able to find the exact poem by Radnoti Miklos I was looking for, digging the book out from behind two layers of tomes, based on my vague description, “The poem they found in his pocket.” I also got a bunch of itty-bitty books, on everything from the history of the printing press in Hungary to the 60th anniversary of communism in Hungary, all of which were sitting temptingly by the cash register.

The great thing about these little bookstores was not just that they each carried interesting and unique books, but also that the employees were knowledgeable about what they were selling. The staff has shaped the store’s selection, and is there to help you navigate it. More than punching a time clock for a big company, the people working in these little bookshops have at least a minimal expertise in the genre or subject of the texts they are selling, and can take an active role in helping readers find material. Here in Calgary, we’ve relegated this role to the inaccessible and distant people who choose what Chindigo carries. This is not only bad because it limits our browsing to the things that company thinks will sell, but also because we are losing access to knowledgeable booksellers who can give customers access to a world of books beyond that set out by one big company. Do we really want just one company choosing what books we can buy? The issues that small bookstores in Canada face are large and complex—I don’t pretend to know all the facets of these issues, and I certainly don’t presume to suggest a solution. All I can say is that I miss browsing though our little bookstores, and that with their disappearance, we are losing something important.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Comic Book Bard

If you’re in the mood for something fun but literary, check out Comic Book Shakespeare. The series uses quotes from the original plays, paired with contemporary English translations, to tell each story in about 60 pages. I read MacBeth, and found the use of quotes very effective—the comic book preserves the play’s most potent sections and all the characters emerge well developed, particularly Lady MacBeth. The series is meant for students, with the contemporary translations making the play accessible to younger children, while the pairing of the contemporary translations with the original text and graphic images could prove useful to older student struggling to understand or to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Book Vending Machine

we found this vending machine, each compartment containing a book, outside the contemporary art museum in vienna. is it real, or some sort of installation piece? we couldn't read the instruction sticker at the top of the machine, so there's only one way to find out...

here go my two euros...

success! the door opened and here's my very own copy of strudl of fame.

hmm.... can't read german, but it's mostly pictures anyway.

Home Again

I don’t normally write poetry while travelling, with the exception of a few random lines here and there. On this trip, however, I did fill one-hundred-and-six pages of a travel journal. But as a writer, you can get more out of travelling than copious notes on the appearance of local junk shops and unfortunate spelling mistakes on menus. If you travel to a country where you speak the language, you have the opportunity to learn endless oddities you’ve never heard about before—for instance, while in Budapest I learned that the Hungarian word for paradise is the same as the word for tomato, and managed to find a copy of Milton’s Tomato Lost in a used bookstore. If you travel somewhere where you can’t speak to others, you have the chance to see everything you miss when you get caught up in text and easy communication. Everything you do suddenly becomes an adventure, as you muddle through the simplest of tasks. You also get to see how people react to you when you can no longer speak to them—suddenly, you have to really communicate with them, paying close attention to their body language and facial expressions. You also have a chance to see how other people live, even if their culture is in many ways similar to your own. Everything from only having coffee to stay, to closing all the shops on Sunday pushes you just a little to rethink your automatic actions and reactions to the world around you. This defamiliarization of mundane details makes everything stand out more sharply, making the world more poetic. Most of all, travelling changes the way you see home. Returning from a long trip always makes Calgary seem new and a little strange to me. The streets seem wider or more narrow, the buildings are taller or shorter, the people or more friendly or suddenly distant, depending on where I have returned from. No matter where you go, or how close or far away it is, travelling refreshes the world around you—a quality travelling shares with poetry. Even you don’t want to write about your trip, it’s hard to not be inspired to write upon returning home… suddenly, everything is new again.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Canadian Exports Update

Somehow, complaining about Nickelback seems to have opened a flood gate. The next day we saw (and heard) the above pictured oddly dressed group of youths on a tram platform singing Rockstar at the top of their lungs...
Also on the radio, Shania Twain and Bryan Adams.