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The Burden of Literacy

I have been in turmoil about what to read next.

I had been working through the vast The Recognitions by William Gaddis, but have had to put it aside for two reasons. First, it’s 954 pages long, and a real wrist-sprainer. Hard to cart around in my bag, considering I need to make room in there for my powerbook and accessories, client folders, notebook, and so forth; and I never travel with only one book, so my bag was often rather uncomfortably bulky. I simply found myself hestitating every time I had to pack my bag for a day out. Rather shallow reason not to read a book, but then, I think it’s why I’ve been having such miserable luck with Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which I own in a hefty hard cover edition, and of which I have read and relished the first three-eighths nearly four times.

The second reason is more content-driven and less, shall we say, cosmetic. Now, The Recognitions is momumental, and I hesitate to say too much about it, since the reputedly pseudonymous “Jack Green” rather famously skewered the whole cabal of professional critics after they supposedly fumbled in their attempts to review the book. His salvo bears his thesis as a title: Fire the Bastards! So, I will simply note one aspect of the book concerns religion. Gaddis clearly has a delightful time exposing all the very real reasons why religion can be so nauseating and dangerous. But it’s a note that I can’t listen to repeatedly, especially in an era when I can’t hear the difference between the apocalyptic ravings of the various peoples of the book.

The Recognitions is unrelenting in its bitter satire. I love satire as much as the next negative positivist, but one of the main characters in the “religion sucks” thread, Aunt May, is just a wee too realistic.

So, I have been casting about for other things to read. I was rather sick recently, and while imprisoned in my bed, surrounded by waste baskets overflowing with saturated tissues, my overstuffed skull could handle nothing other than Cadfael mysteries. These are deeply satisfying novels, twenty in all, and we own perhaps twelve of them. Thirteen were made into TV shows starring the irresistable Derek Jacobi. We own all of those (a lavish birthday present a few years ago) and have watched them often.

The series is set from about 1137 to 1146, essentially the decade when England was torn by civil war between Empress Maud, the daughter of King Henry II, and her cousin, pretender to the throne, King Stephen. History remembers Stephen as Henry’s successor, and the last of the Angevin/Norman kings, but Stephen’s successor was Maud’s son, Henry III, the first of the Plantagenets, and father of the next acquisitve generation: his children would squabble for the next hundred years in the poetically named wars of the roses (the white rose of York and the red rose of Lanaster. Or maybe the other way round. This is one of those camel/dromedary problems…)

Anyway, this era is dear to me, since at this time the first universities were slowly congealing out of the monastic soup at the various commercial centers of Europe; the bookmen, or scholastics, were reading the unexpurgated Aristotle for the first time since the 400s, and the groundwork for the modern world was being laid: Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, Darwin…

Don’t look to ancient Rome or Greece for nearly as much of our world as you might think. They were slave states, an aristocracy and an empire, and both were quite remote philosophically from anything that existed in Europe after, say, the Carolingians. You and I would be quite profoundly disoriented if we were dropped into Rome of the third century CE, or Greece in the third century BCE. But send us to Shrewsbury England, 1141 CE, and we might even understand a little of the language. The atrocious hygiene might drive us to drink, but on the whole, quite familiar.

But I have since read three Cadfael books, and I think that’s enough for the time being. So. What to read?

It’s currently between Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, or The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald. Neither is too bulky, so I am hauling both with me. I will dip into each over the next day or two, and decide which will come first, and which will come second.

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