Sunday, January 31, 2010

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

There are ebbs and flows in one's reading life. Sometimes there are dry patches where you simply can't find a book that matches your mood or interests. You have adequate reads but nothing that really grips you.

And then there are times when you will have a series of home-runs. You keep coming across, as if by accident, books that answer questions you are asking or give you information you are seeking. Authors who are thinking along similar paths as you are, maybe approaching it differently or arriving at somewhat variant conclusions but whose thoughts help hone your own.

I have had a good past eighteen months with a sequence of books on different topics every month or two that do exactly that. Books that I can wrestle with, that I can tell even as I read them are going to influence my thinking; that will give me not only new information but force me to look at something from a perspective I had not considered before.

The most recent diamond was entirely serendipitous. I found Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century in a used bookstore and, thinking it was an essay about a philosophical/historical connection between our current circumstances and the intellectual ecosystem of the 18th century, I purchased it even though I was unfamiliar with Postman's work.

What a break. With that title I might have gone either way on the give-this-book-a-home decision. A brief biography of Neil Postman is at Wikipedia. Having just discovered him, I find that he actually passed away in 2003. That is one of the pitfalls of used bookstores - sometimes you fall behind. Postman appears to be one of those intellectual iconoclasts with which New York City has so often been blessed, carving out his own distinctive intellectual path. He appears to have travelled from the rollickingly innovative and even revolutionary to a more settled respect for continuity with the past.

A number of his books have been either best sellers and/or highly influential, including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985 dealing with the influence of television on communication), Technopoly (1992), The End of Education (1995), and The Disappearance of Childhood (1982). Building a Bridge to the 18th Century was Postman's last book and is actually a distillation of over thirty years of thinking and writing. The chapters (Progress, Technology, Language, Information, Narratives, Children, Democracy, and Education) are really a series of Montaignesque interlinked meditations, building on and bringing up to date the core ideas of all his earlier works.

I highly recommend Building a Bridge to the 18th Century as a distinctly relevant, very thought provoking and always entertaining disquisition on topics near and dear to parents and any thinking citizen. I also would recommend this for YA readers in eleventh and twelfth grade who are taking technology courses, media studies, and most especially philosophy. There is a lot of grist for young mills in this book.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

We must sail, and not drift

Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
...the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: to reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it--but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.

I remember that I read the feudal play of Henry V for the first time in a loghouse.

Here are further comments from Alexis de Tocqueville and his Democracy in America published in 1835. Again, when read in context, you see that de Tocqueville is really focusing on America as a prototypical democracy which serves as comparison to practices in aristrocratic Europe. Of course today we tend to mine de Tocqueville more for his anthropological observations than for his political philosophy.
When a traveller goes into a bookseller's shop in the United States, and examines the American books upon the shelves, the number of works appears extremely great; whilst that of known authors appears, on the contrary, to be extremely small. He will first meet with a number of elementary treatises, destined to teach the rudiments of human knowledge. Most of these books are written in Europe; the Americans reprint them, adapting them to their own country. Next comes an enormous quantity of religious works, Bibles, sermons, edifying anecdotes, controversial divinity, and reports of charitable societies; lastly, appears the long catalogue of political pamphlets. In America, parties do not write books to combat each others' opinions, but pamphlets which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity, and then expire. In the midst of all these obscure productions of the human brain are to be found the more remarkable works of that small number of authors, whose names are, or ought to be, known to Europeans.

Although America is perhaps in our days the civilized country in which literature is least attended to, a large number of persons are nevertheless to be found there who take an interest in the productions of the mind, and who make them, if not the study of their lives, at least the charm of their leisure hours. But England supplies these readers with the larger portion of the books which they require. Almost all important English books are republished in the United States. The literary genius of Great Britain still darts its rays into the recesses of the forests of the New World. There is hardly a pioneer's hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal play of Henry V for the first time in a loghouse.

Not only do the Americans constantly draw upon the treasures of English literature, but it may be said with truth that they find the literature of England growing on their own soil. The larger part of that small number of men in the United States who are engaged in the composition of literary works are English in substance, and still more so in form. Thus they transport into the midst of democracy the ideas and literary fashions which are current amongst the aristocratic nation they have taken for their model. They paint with colors borrowed from foreign manners; and as they hardly ever represent the country they were born in as it really is, they are seldom popular there. The citizens of the United States are themselves so convinced that it is not for them that books are published, that before they can make up their minds upon the merit of one of their authors, they generally wait till his fame has been ratified in England, just as in pictures the author of an original is held to be entitled to judge of the merit of a copy. The inhabitants of the United States have then at present, properly speaking, no literature. The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them. Other authors are aliens; they are to the Americans what the imitators of the Greeks and Romans were to us at the revival of learning--an object of curiosity, not of general sympathy. They amuse the mind, but they do not act upon the manners of the people.

de Tocqueville and reading in America

Alexis de Tocqueville is famous for his Democracy in America published in 1835. While primarily intended as a comparison of democracies versus aristocracies, it is also an anthropological study as well as a travelogue. I came across this snippet in which de Tocqueville describes a specific frontier cabin in which he stopped for the night but offers it as a representative example of the cabins in which he stayed as he travelled about. I was struck by his description of the reading conditions and supplies for a typical frontiersman.
We entered the log house: the inside is quite unlike that of the cottages of the peasantry of Europe: it contains more than is superfluous, less than is necessary. A single window with a muslin blind; on a hearth of trodden clay an immense fire, which lights the whole structure; above the hearth a good rifle, a deer's skin, and plumes of eagles' feathers; on the right hand of the chimney a map of the United States, raised and shaken by the wind through the crannies in the wall; near the map, upon a shelf formed of a roughly hewn plank, a few volumes of books--a Bible, the six first books of Milton, and two of Shakespeare's plays; along the wall, trunks instead of closets; in the centre of the room a rude table, with legs of green wood, and with the bark still upon them, looking as if they grew out of the ground on which they stood; but on this table a tea-pot of British ware, silver spoons, cracked tea-cups, and some newspapers.

The literary conditions of frontiersmen and women in the 1830's is something of a reproof to our current homes which are so often bereft of books at all much less Milton and Shakespeare.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Define: Eschaton

Eschaton from an article (The Real Barack Obama by Jay Cost in Real Clear Politics, January 12, 2010).
Other pols promise the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky, but Barack Obama would do them one better: he'd promise the eschaton.


Main Entry: eschaton
Part of Speech: n
Definition: end of the world, end of time, climax of history
Etymology: Greek for 'last'

Benefit of Clergy

I had forgotten about this interesting little twist in British legal history. For roughly 350 years one could avoid being charged with a crime or could (if a first time offender) receive a lesser sentence if you could prove you could read. This was pretty important in an era when stealing property of almost any sort might attract the penalty of death by hanging.

From Wikipedia:
At first, in order to plead the benefit of clergy, one had to appear before the court tonsured and otherwise wearing ecclesiastical dress. Over time, this proof of clergy-hood was replaced by a literacy test: defendants demonstrated their clerical status by reading from the Bible. This opened the door to literate lay defendants' also claiming the benefit of clergy. In 1351, under Edward III, this loophole was formalised in statute, and the benefit of clergy was officially extended to all who could read.

The literacy test was not abolished until 1706. I guess it would have given kids a pretty good incentive to pay attention in class.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What's that? Gone for a Burton

A phrase used in England. Came across it in Alistair MacLean's Night Without End.

"What?" The sudden switch caught him momentarily off-balance. "What happened - you mean, how did it go for a burton? I've no idea at all, sir."

From Michael Quinion's site (World Wide Words) there is a discussion of this enigmatic phrase that appears to have originated in World War II in the RAF to refer to a pilot killed in action but now referring more broadly to something gone missing or destroyed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Benjamin Rush: "Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error."

Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, American Founding Father)
Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error.

The blessing of ignorance is the joy of discovery

John Locke, the British Enlightenment philosopher, wrote a very popular philosophical tract, Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693. My college education gave me a grounding in Locke the philosopher, particularly from the aspect of government, natural law, etc. Somehow I missed this tract completely but what an interesting read it is.

I am in the process of finalizing the research I have been doing to identify the key activities parents can pursue that are proven from field data to support the development of a reading culture in the family. Of the thirteen activities I have identified, Locke, 320 years ago, hits on six (Give them choice, Celebrate books, Read to them, Variety, Talk a lot, and Don't rush).

On instructing a child in reading:
When he can talk, 'tis time he should begin to learn to read. But as to this, give me leave here to inculcate again, what is very apt to be forgotten, viz. That great care is to be taken, that it be never made as a business to him, nor he look on it as a task. We naturally, as I said, even from our cradles, love liberty, and have therefore an aversion to many things for no other reason but because they are enjoin'd us. I have always had a fancy that learning might be made a play and recreation to children: and that they might be brought to desire to be taught, if it were proposed to them as a thing of honour, credit, delight, and recreation, or as a reward for doing something else; and if they were never chid or corrected for the neglect of it. That which confirms me in this opinion is, that amongst the Portuguese, 'tis so much a fashion and emulation amongst their children, to learn to read and write, that they cannot hinder them from it: they will learn it one from another, and are as intent on it, as if it were forbidden them. I remember that being at a friend's house, whose younger son, a child in coats, was not easily brought to his book (being taught to read at home by his mother) I advised to try another way, than requiring it of him as his duty; we therefore, in a discourse on purpose amongst our selves, in his hearing, but without taking any notice of him, declared, that it was the privilege and advantage of heirs and elder brothers, to be scholars; that this made them fine gentlemen, and beloved by every body: and that for younger brothers, 'twas a favour to admit them to breeding; to be taught to read and write, was more than came to their share; they might be ignorant bumpkins and clowns, if they pleased. This so wrought upon the child, that afterwards he desired to be taught; would come himself to his mother to learn, and would not let his maid be quiet till she heard him his lesson. I doubt not but some way like this might be taken with other children; and when their tempers are found, some thoughts be instill'd into them, that might set them upon desiring of learning, themselves, and make them seek it as another sort of play or recreation. But then, as I said before, it must never be imposed as a task, nor made a trouble to them. There may be dice and play-things, with the letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing; and twenty other ways may be found, suitable to their particular tempers, to make this kind of learning a sport to them.

Thus children may be cozen'd into a knowledge of the letters; be taught to read, without perceiving it to be any thing but a sport, and play themselves into that which others are whipp'd for. Children should not have any thing like work, or serious, laid on them; neither their minds, nor bodies will bear it. It injures their healths; and their being forced and tied down to their books in an age at enmity with all such restraint, has, I doubt not, been the reason, why a great many have hated books and learning all their lives after. 'Tis like a surfeit, that leaves an aversion behind not to be removed.

I have therefore thought, that if play-things were fitted to this purpose, as they are usually to none, contrivances might be made to teach children to read, whilst they thought they were only playing. For example, what if an ivory-ball were made like that of the royal-oak lottery, with thirty two sides, or one rather of twenty four or twenty five sides; and upon several of those sides pasted on an A, upon several others B, on others C, and on others D? I would have you begin with but these four letters, or perhaps only two at first; and when he is perfect in them, then add another; and so on till each side having one letter, there be on it the whole alphabet. This I would have others play with before him, it being as good a sort of play to lay a stake who shall first throw an A or B, as who upon dice shall throw six or seven. This being a play amongst you, tempt him not to it, lest you make it business; for I would not have him understand 'tis any thing but a play of older people, and I doubt not but he will take to it of himself. And that he may have the more reason to think it is a play, that he is sometimes in favour admitted to, when the play is done the ball should be laid up safe out of his reach, that so it may not, by his having it in his keeping at any time, grow stale to him.

To keep up his eagerness to it, let him think it a game belonging to those above him: and when, by this means, he knows the letters, by changing them into syllables, he may learn to read, without knowing how he did so, and never have any chiding or trouble about it, nor fall out with books because of the hard usage and vexation they have caus'd him. Children, if you observe them, take abundance of pains to learn several games, which, if they should be enjoined them, they would abhor as a task and business. I know a person of great quality (more yet to be honoured for his learning and virtue than for his rank and high place) who by pasting on the six vowels (for in our language Y is one) on the six sides of a die, and the remaining eighteen consonants on the sides of three other dice, has made this a play for his children, that he shall win who, at one cast, throws most words on these four dice; whereby his eldest son, yet in coats, has play'd himself into spelling, with great eagerness, and without once having been chid for it or forced to it.

I have seen little girls exercise whole hours together and take abundance of pains to be expert at dibstones as they call it. Whilst I have been looking on, I have thought it wanted only some good contrivance to make them employ all that industry about something that might be more useful to them; and methinks 'tis only the fault and negligence of elder people that it is not so. Children are much less apt to be idle than men; and men are to be blamed if some part of that busy humour be not turned to useful things; which might be made usually as delightful to them as those they are employed in, if men would be but half so forward to lead the way, as these little apes would be to follow. I imagine some wise Portuguese heretofore began this fashion amongst the children of his country, where I have been told, as I said, it is impossible to hinder the children from learning to read and write: and in some parts of France they teach one another to sing and dance from the cradle.

The letters pasted upon the sides of the dice, or polygon, were best to be of the size of those of the folio Bible, to begin with, and none of them capital letters; when once he can read what is printed in such letters, he will not long be ignorant of the great ones: and in the beginning he should not be perplexed with variety. With this die also, you might have a play just like the royal oak, which would be another variety, and play for cherries or apples, &c.

Besides these, twenty other plays might be invented depending on letters, which those who like this way, may easily contrive and get made to this use if they will. But the four dice above-mention'd I think so easy and useful, that it will be hard to find any better, and there will be scarce need of any other.

Thus much for learning to read, which let him never be driven to, nor chid for; cheat him into it if you can, but make it not a business for him. 'Tis better it be a year later before he can read, than that he should this way get an aversion to learning. If you have any contest with him, let it be in matters of moment, of truth, and good nature; but lay no task on him about A B C. Use your skill to make his will supple and pliant to reason: teach him to love credit and commendation; to abhor being thought ill or meanly of, especially by you and his mother, and then the rest will come all easily. But I think if you will do that, you must not shackle and tie him up with rules about indifferent matters, nor rebuke him for every little fault, or perhaps some that to others would seem great ones; but of this I have said enough already.

When by these gentle ways he begins to read, some easy pleasant book, suited to his capacity, should be put into his hands, wherein the entertainment that he finds might draw him on, and reward his pains in reading, and yet not such as should fill his head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of vice and folly. To this purpose, I think Aesop's Fables the best, which being stories apt to delight and entertain a child, may yet afford useful reflections to a grown man; and if his memory retain them all his life after, he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly thoughts and serious business. If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much the better, and encourage him to read, when it carries the increase of knowledge with it: for such visible objects children hear talked of in vain and without any satisfaction whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves or their pictures. And therefore I think as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge. Reynard the Fox is another book I think may be made use of to the same purpose. And if those about him will talk to him often about the stories he has read, and hear him tell them, it will, besides other advantages, add encouragement and delight to his reading, when he finds there is some use and pleasure in it. These baits seem wholly neglected in the ordinary method; and 'tis usually long before learners find any use or pleasure in reading, which may tempt them to it, and so take books only for fashionable amusements, or impertinent troubles, good for nothing.

The Lord's Prayer, the Creeds, and Ten Commandments, 'tis necessary he should learn perfectly by heart; but, I think, not by reading them himself in his primer, but by somebody's repeating them to him, even before he can read. But learning by heart, and learning to read, should not I think be mix'd, and so one made to clog the other. But his learning to read should be made as little trouble or business to him as might be.

What other books there are in English of the kind of those above-mentioned, fit to engage the liking of children, and tempt them to read, I do not know: but am apt to think, that children being generally delivered over to the method of schools, where the fear of the rod is to inforce, and not any pleasure of the employment to invite them to learn, this sort of useful books, amongst the number of silly ones that are of all sorts, have yet had the fate to be neglected; and nothing that I know has been considered of this kind out of the ordinary road of the horn-book, primer, psalter, Testament, and Bible.

As for the Bible, which children are usually employ'd in to exercise and improve their talent in reading, I think the promiscuous reading of it through by chapters as they lie in order, is so far from being of any advantage to children, either for the perfecting their reading, or principling their religion, that perhaps a worse could not be found. For what pleasure or encouragement can it be to a child to exercise himself in reading those parts of a book where he understands nothing? And how little are the law of Moses, the song of Solomon, the prophecies in the Old, and the Epistles and Apocalypse in the New Testament, suited to a child's capacity? And though the history of the Evangelists and the Acts have something easier, yet, taken altogether, it is very disproportional to the understanding of childhood. I grant that the principles of religion are to be drawn from thence, and in the words of the scripture; yet none should be propos'd to a child, but such as are suited to a child's capacity and notions. But 'tis far from this to read through the whole Bible, and that for reading's sake. And what an odd jumble of thoughts must a child have in his head, if he have any at all, such as he should have concerning religion, who in his tender age reads all the parts of the Bible indifferently as the word of God without any other distinction! I am apt to think, that this in some men has been the very reason why they never had clear and distinct thoughts of it all their lifetime.

And now I am by chance fallen on this subject, give me leave to say, that there are some parts of the Scripture which may be proper to be put into the hands of a child to engage him to read; such as are the story of Joseph and his brethren, of David and Goliath, of David and Jonathan, &c. and others that he should be made to read for his instruction, as that, What you would have others do unto you, do you the same unto them; and such other easy and plain moral rules, which being fitly chosen, might often be made use of, both for reading and instruction together; and so often read till they are throughly fixed in the memory; and then afterwards, as he grows ripe for them, may in their turns on fit occasions be inculcated as the standing and sacred rules of his life and actions. But the reading of the whole Scripture indifferently, is what I think very inconvenient for children, till after having been made acquainted with the plainest fundamental parts of it, they have got some kind of general view of what they ought principally to believe and practise; which yet, I think, they ought to receive in the very words of the scripture, and not in such as men prepossess'd by systems and analogies are apt in this case to make use of and force upon them. Dr. Worthington, to avoid this, has made a catechism, which has all its answers in the precise words of the Scripture; a thing of good example, and such a sound form of words as no Christian can except against as not fit for his child to learn. Of this, as soon as he can say the Lord's Prayer, Creed, the Ten Commandments, by heart, it may be fit for him to learn a question every day, or every week, as his understanding is able to receive and his memory to retain them. And when he has this catechism perfectly by heart, so as readily and roundly to answer to any question in the whole book, it may be convenient to lodge in his mind the remaining moral rules scatter'd up and down in the Bible, as the best exercise of his memory, and that which may be always a rule to him, ready at hand, in the whole conduct of his life.

The forgotten scandal of the Soviet ape-man

The British magazine, New Scientist, has a section, Histories, which is always full of intriguing off-beat stories about the wanderings and progress of scientific endeavor. The August 23, 2008 edition of New Scientist has an article on the early efforts at the hybridization of animals, The forgotten scandal of the Soviet ape-man.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Single-Handed by C.S. Forester

C.S. Forester is famous for his Hornblower series (eleven books in the series starting with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower) and The African Queen. He wrote much else though, fiction and non-fiction.

Sometime ago, I came across Single-Handed, originally published in 1929. The copy I found was a used paperback printed in 1953 and has fragile yellow pages and a brittle spine. Because of its condition, I set it aside for reading at home, it not being robust enough to be carried around in a briefcase.

Finally got to it yesterday. It is, like much of Forester's writing, a good solid read, a naval adventure story. It would be appropriate for an eighth grader on up.

It is an interestingly constructed story in that it is written in the third person and does not so much have a human but rather the British Navy and Duty as the protagonist. It is quite an interesting and unusual structure, and despite misgivings as I was reading it, I think it actually works pretty well.

Bad faith and critical ingenuity often go hunting together

Frederic Raphael in a review in Literary Review, January 2010.
In our own time . . . bad faith and critical ingenuity often go hunting together.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Living messages

Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood.
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.

The Fleet the Gods Forgot

I came across this Naval Institue Press book by W.G. Winlsow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II, a few months ago at the Eagle Eye bookstore. The Asiatic Fleet (distinct from the Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii) was formed in 1902 and dissolved at the end of 1942 and was tasked with looking after America's interests in the western Pacific. It was storied in its time and always had an air of the romance of the east, in part because of its being based at Subic Bay, near Manilla in the Philippines as well as with a river boat squadron at Shanghai in China.

At the commencement of US involvement in World War II with Japan's surprise attack on December 7th, 1941, the Asiatic Fleet was ill-prepared in terms of the modernization of its ships. While there were a couple of ships built in the late 1920's, the majority of the fleet dated to the first world war or earlier. What is often overlooked in the quick world history classes of our children is that simultaneous with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the empire of Japan also launched invasions of many of the countries of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. Even in hindsight it was an act not only of military hubris but of astonishing logistic coordination.

Winslow tells the tale of this long neglected far-off corner of the war. Half of the Asiatic Fleet's surface units were sunk within the first three months of the war. They were ill-equipped, poorly supplied, ill-used (often as part of a joint allied effort between the US, the British and the Dutch) and almost always on the defensive but made up of often tactically brilliant commanders and resolute seamen. They bore the brunt of all the initial reverses, holding the line at tremendous odds and horrendous cost in those first few months.

The book is oddly constructed in that the first eighty pages summarize the general movements and uses of the different branches of the fleet (submarines, cruisers, destroyers, etc.). I almost didn't make it through this section and you might wish to skip it. The real stories are in Part II, which Winslow calls Battle Reports. In each of these chapters he follows a unit (a particluar ship, plane, submarine, etc.) through its experiences. Since half of them fought to the point of sinking and almost all of them were in numerous battles, these are pretty exciting stories.

And some of them are simply amazing. Take the tiny and barely armed USS Isabel, a yacht of virtually no military value (sometimes referred to as the "relief flagship"). Her adventures in the first few months of WWII were actually quite astonishing. Because she was regarded as of little value, half the time she was being given impossibly dangerous jobs to do and half the time she was being forgotten about and left to her own devices. She eventually made it safely to Fremantle, Australia.

And then there is the story of Lieutenant Commander Morrill in command of the USS Quail, a minesweeper. She was the last Asiatic Fleet unit remaining in the Philippines at the fall of Corregidor. Morrill was ordered on May 5th, 1942 to scuttle the Quail just as the surrender was being announced. Doing as he was ordered, Morrill still was reluctant to submit to capture. He and seventeen others comandeered a small tug, the Ranger and determined to make their way to the southern Philippines where they understood surviving forces to be continuing the fight. Eventually, they found that this was not feasible and they ultimately made their way to Australia.
Thus, the eighteen navy men happily concluded their incredible 2,000 mile odyssey. They had managed safely to traverse enemy-infested, unfamiliar seas in their little 36-foot motor launch at an average speed of 5 knots, using a jury-rigged sextant to plot their way on inadequate navigational charts. This daring, seemingly impossible escape from Corregidor to Darwin, Australia, by Lieutenant Commander John H. Morrill and his men must surely stand tall among the all-time great achievements attributed to men of the United States Navy.

This story on its own warrants the book. It is right up there with Bligh and his navigating the loyal crew of eighteen from the HMS Bounty 2,000 miles across the Pacific to Timor in 1789 in a 23 foot launch. Whereas Bligh had the disadvantage of sailing without a motorized and slightly larger tug, on the other hand Morrill had literally hundreds of enemy ships and planes trying to intercept him the whole journey. Both are remarkable tales of seamanship.

An excellent book (the second half) for a YA reader with an interest in World War II, the Navy and the Sea, military action, adventure, history, courage, duty and heroism.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Orwell and Huxley

From Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

A disconcerting picture


Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Child's Drawing by Giovanni Francesco Caroto painted circa 1515

The National Gallery in London had an exhibition a year or so ago, Renaissance Faces. In reading a review of the show I came across this quite startling painting, Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Child's Drawing by Giovanni Francesco Caroto painted circa 1515.

I find it startling for three reasons. Most arrestingly is the simple expression of manic mischievousness on the boy's face. A little hard to decipher.

The second reason is the context. Children were still in this period of history regarded as smaller versions of adults and were often painted as such. There was no particular accord granted to their differences. This is one of the earliest paintings I have seen which looks as if the artist was attempting to capture an expression characteristic of, if not unique to, children.

But what really grabs me is the drawing which the child is holding. Walk into any kindergarten across the country today and you will see this picture or something very proximate to it tacked up on the wall. Across half a millennia, between two continents, across almost inconceivable changes in social structure, national culture, etc., this picture cries out the fundamental sameness of children, their delights, the changes they go through and the skills they acquire. I find it fascinating.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour

Edna St. Vincent Millay
from Huntsman, What Quarry?, 1939
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour
falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts;
They lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
is daily spun,
But there exists no loom
to weave it into fabric.

Exasperation balanced by perspective

Occassionally I become exasperated by some commentator, activist, or politician harping on about some age-old issue of discrimination or unfairness or slight. Usually it is an issue that used to be valid but statistically is no longer extant and yet these old policy warriors wage on like some Don Quixote tilting at their imagined windmills. Noble, but no longer relevant. But then I come across something like this obituary from the Economist a couple of years ago, (Mildred Loving, The Economist, May 17th, 2008 unfortunately inaccessible except to subscribers or as premium content). While this is in some ways ancient history, it is disconcerting how recent that ancient history is.
They loved each other. That must have been why they decided to get their marriage certificate framed and to hang it up in the bedroom of their house. There was little else in the bedroom, save the bed. Certainly nothing worth locking the front door for on a warm July night in 1958 in Central Point, Virginia. No one came this way, ten miles off the Richmond Turnpike into the dipping hills and the small, poor, scattered farmhouses, unless they had to. But Mildred Loving was suddenly woken to the crash of a door and a torch levelled in her eyes.

It was the law.
Mrs Loving had said the wrong thing. Had they just been going together, black and white, no one would have cared much. But they had formalised their love, and had the paperwork. This meant that under Virginia law they were cohabiting "against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth". It was a felony for blacks and whites to marry, and another felony to leave Virginia to do so. Fifteen other states had similar laws. The Lovings had to get up and go to jail. "The Lord made sparrows and robins, not to mix with one another," as Sheriff Brooks said later.

Reluctantly, they moved to Washington, D.C., and later initiated a court case with the assistance of the ACLU.
By 1967 they had obtained a unanimous ruling from Earl Warren's Supreme Court that marriage was "one of the basic civil rights of man", which "cannot be infringed by the state". The Lovings were free to go home and live together, in a new cinder-block house Richard built himself.

The constitutional arguments had meant nothing to them. Their chief lawyer, Bernard Cohen, had based his case in the end on the equal-rights clause of the 14th amendment, and was keen that the Lovings should listen to him speak. But they did not attend the hearings or read the decision. Richard merely urged Mr Cohen, "Tell the court I love my wife." For Mildred, all that mattered was being able to walk down the street, in view of everyone, with her husband's arm around her. It was very simple. If she had helped many others do the same, so much the better.

And should anyone think this is just a further example of the benighted status of the US and an unending shadow of history, every country does have its unique journeys down the wrong path. Two examples come to mind from countries in which I have lived and hold in high regard. They are offered not as condemnation of those particular countries but as examples that it happens everywhere and in the least expected places.
The practice of eugenics continued in Sweden of all places until 1975.
Australia did not extend the vote to aborigines until the 1960's. Not protection in voting but being able to vote at all.

We have travelled a long distance in a short time but there are clear memories of how it used to be just such a short time ago. It is good to move on and confront the new problems we reliably create for ourselves in our journeys: at least for me though, I find myself and my impatience reproached by stories like Mildred Loving's when I come across them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

And there you have it . . .

From a sermon by Reverend J.D'E.E. Firth originally delivered on May 11, 1955 and printed in the December 19, 2009, edition of The Spectator.
This intuition was once well expressed in its most generalised form, by Sir Edward Grey, when he was asked how, as foreign secretary, he could see his way through the maze of a particularly difficult international negotiation. 'I see my way clear,' he replied, 'because I have always believed that to do the right thing is the right thing to do."


I love book lists and finding out what books are favorites among different readers. I don't know, however, quite what to make of this factoid (Harper's magazine, Index, March 2000)
Number of Playboy centerfold models since 1959 whose bios claimed their favorite book was by Ayn Rand: 12

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Farewell Bruce Alexander

Laid up as I am with a broken knee, completely immobile for some weeks, I am making rapid progress through not only my routine backlog of reading but also some of those books that I set aside to be read in the future that I know I will like.

Yesterday, I dispatched the final book in Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding series. There are eleven books in the series starting with Blind Justice and ending, as I did yesterday, with Rules of Engagement.

An excellent series of mysteries set in Georgian London in the mid-1700's, it is based on the framework of the life of one of those early practical reformers with which England was so rich, in this instance, Sir John Fielding, "The Blind Beak" of Bow Street. There is a brief biographical entry of Sir John over at Wikipedia.

I discovered Alexander's series late, after seven or eight of the books had been published, started at the beginning with Blind Justice, worked my way forwards and then watched for new books as they were published every couple of years or so. Then, as seems to happen so distressingly often with newly discovered authors of series one really likes, Bruce Alexander passed away in 2003 with a final novel nearly finished. The story was completed by John Shannon and Alexander's wife, Judith Alexander based on notes he had left behind.

The whole series is an excellent view into the city and social structure of a London that was not at that time much more than a conglomeration of villages and yet populated with a most amazing portfolio of characters. The books are appropriate for highschoolers interested in history, mysteries or England.

What's that? cum grano salis

cum grano salis: from Dot Wordsworth's column in the December 19-26, 2009, Spectator. Additional background here.
cum grano salis: with a grain of salt

Define: Feuilleton

Feuilleton from an article (Found in Translation, The New Yorker, January 18, 2010).
The Arab reading public, although avid for all sorts of fiction, in a plethora of newspapers and cheap feuilletons, has (for evident economic reasons) not fully embraced the novel as a published book. Few Arabic novels sell enough copies to earn their authors anything like a living income; even Mahfouz kept a civil-service job until he was sixty.


Main Entry: feuil·le·ton
Pronunciation: \ˌfə-yə-ˈtōⁿ, ˌfər- ˌfoe-\
Function: noun
Etymology: French, from feuillet sheet of paper, from Old French foillet, diminutive of foille leaf — more at foil
Date: 1845
1 : a part of a European newspaper or magazine devoted to material designed to entertain the general reader
2 : something (as an installment of a novel) printed in a feuilleton
3 a : a novel printed in installments b : a work of fiction catering to popular taste
4 : a short literary composition often having a familiar tone and reminiscent content

Monday, January 18, 2010

I am the captain of my soul

See background.
by W.E. Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Haven't read the play but this quote caught my eye.

a character in Tracy Letts's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, says, "Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm."

From an essay by Christopher Hayes, System Failure, The Nation January 14, 2010.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The world is too much with us . . .

The World is Too Much With Us
by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Give a man a book he can read . . .

by James Thompson

GIVE a man a horse he can ride,
Give a man a boat he can sail;
And his rank and wealth, his strength and health,
On sea nor shore shall fail.

Give a man a pipe he can smoke,
Give a man a book he can read:
And his home is bright with a calm delight,
Though the room be poor indeed.

Give a man a girl he can love,
As I, O my love, love thee;
And his heart is great with the pulse of Fate,
At home, on land, on sea.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

So simple . . .

and so beautiful. An adaption by Twain of a much longer poem by the Australian poet Robert Richardson. The story and original poem is here.
Epitaph of Olivia Susan Clemens (1866-1890)
by Robert Richardson and adapted by Mark Twain

Warm summer sun,
shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind,
blow softly here;

Green sod above,
lie light, lie light --
Good-night, dear heart,
good-night, good-night.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Define: Chiliasm

Chiliastic from an article (American Dreamer, The Economist, January 9th, 2010).
Where Luce was not wrong was in his famous essay, published in February, 1941, that this would be "an American Century". His point was not imperial, but idealistic, even chiliastic.


Main Entry: chil·i·asm
Pronunciation: \'ki-le-ˌa-zəm\
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin chiliasmus, from Late Latin chiliastes one that believes in chiliasm, from chilias
Date: 1610

Practice, Persistence and Enjoyment

Came across two articles which, in their different ways, reinforce one of the underlying principles of Growing a Reading Culture; the importance of enjoying what you are doing in order to support constant repetition and practice. In other words, by enjoying reading, you read more. By reading more you become a better reader. As a better reader you become more able to read yet more. The broader your reading capabilities, the more likely you are to find books you do enjoy and remain motivated to read further.

In Malcolm Gladwell's article (The Sure Thing in the January 18, 2010, New Yorker, abstract only available on-line) he argues that the distinctive thing about successful entrepreneurs is that they are risk averse, they enjoy what they are doing, they are curious and they persist.

From the article:
There are a number of moments like this in "The Greatest Trade Ever," when it becomes clear just how much Paulson enjoyed his work. Yes, he wanted to make money. But he was fabulously wealthy long before he tackled the mortgage business. His real motivation was the challenge of figuring out a particularly knotty problem. He was a kid with a puzzle.

This is consistent with the one undisputed finding in all the research on entrepreneurship: people who work for themselves are far happier than the rest of us.

They were drawn to the eighty-per-cent chance of getting to do what they love doing. The predator [entrepreneur] is a supremely rational actor. But, deep down, he is also a romantic, motivated by the simple joy he finds in his work.

And then there is this article in the December 19/26, 2009 edition of the New Scientist. Stephen Battersby in Lab Ruts writes:
To confirm the existence of their suspected new element, radium, Marie and Pierre Curie took tonnes of residue from uranium ore and processed it by hand. Fitting the pattern of women getting the really grim jobs in science, Marie did most of the hard graft. She describes how she worked in "a wooden shed with a bituminous floor and a glass roof which did not keep the rain out... It was exhausting work to move the containers about, to transfer the liquids, and to stir for hours at a time, with an iron bar, the boiling material in the cast-iron basin." Over a span of four years, she turned a tonne of ore into 100 milligrams of radium chloride.

But here's the surprise. The Curies actually enjoyed their work. "We were very happy," Marie wrote. "We lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream."

They are not the only ones. One of the great staring feats of modern times - a Nobel-garlanded staring feat, no less - belongs to John Sulston of the University of Cambridge. During one 18-month stretch he spent every available hour gazing down a microscope at growing nematode worms, eventually tracking the fate of every single cell from egg to adult. Squinting at grey blobs for a year and a half may sound dull to you and me - but it wasn't to Sulston. "It was fun. I love looking down a microscope," he says.

Boredom, it seems, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Scientists at the top of their game rarely become jaded, possibly because it is only the most tenacious individuals who ever succeed in research.


This shouldn't gall me, so common is that attitude, and perhaps it is simply that it is the fourth or fifth such blind, watery mindlessness that I have come across today, but really. What's got my goat? The insufferable willingness of the chattering class to try and puff themselves up while insulting their readers, most often without even the wit to realize that they are doing so.

Claudia Roth-Pierpont of the New Yorker is this evening's example. In her article in the January 18, 2010 New Yorker, Found in Translation, she manages to hold back till all of the second paragraph before beginning to show her disrespect for her reader.
Our long history of indifference has made it difficult, down the years, to come by stories of Arab life that do not involve genies or magic lamps. True, the novel is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Arabic literature; poetry, an ancient art, has traditionally held wider prestige.

I don't think you have to be overly sensistive to read "Our long history of indifference . . . " as a sotto voce accusation of our own reading habits. And who is this "Our" Kimosabe? I was reading Lebanese and Palestinian writers in college nearly thirty years ago. But that's just me. Indifference? Well maybe people have other interests. Even the most enthusiastic 10% of readers only read an average of 25 books a year. Given all the non-fiction books, attractive but more plebian genres such as mysteries and adventure stories, and the five hundred years of authorial outpouring in English much less the rest of Western literature, there is an awfully large backlog of books to get through that probably have higher interest/cultural affinity/usefulness/etc. before you get to contemporary literary fiction of the Middle East. So indifference: let's be fair to the reader and say it is not indifference but different priorities. Or at least priorities different than those of Claudia Roth-Pierpont.

But it gets worse. Roth-Pierpont then goes on in her article to acknowledge that, in terms of novels:
The form developed sporadically in the first half of the last century, and no more than three or four Arabic novels appeared in English before the mid-fifties. After the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, in 1988, there was a significant surge of interest - Mahfouz himself finally got an American commercial publisher - but the burden of bringing Arabic books to English readers still falls mainly on devoted translators, and on the small and heroic presses that have performed this service from the start. Their joint efforts have rarely mattered more. The Arab reading public, although avid for all sorts of fiction, in a plethora of newspapers and cheap feuilletons, has (for evident economic reasons) not fully embraced the novel as a published book. Few Arabic novels sell enough copies to earn their authors anything like a living income; even Mahfouz kept a civil-service job until he was sixty.

So, before the 1950's there were only a couple of novels translated, there haven't been many since then, and the Arab reading public itself is pretty indifferent to the novels being written. One is left to wonder just what sort of contorted world view it is, if these are the facts, that allows one to conclude that Western readers carry some special burden for their long history of indifference which they apparently share with the Arab reading public. This all smacks of supplicating self-criticism in the face of a reality that the author doesn't wish to acknowledge but is comfortable to translate into bilious accusations against her readers. You could leap to a further conclusion that is even worse, i.e. that Roth-Pierpont has higher expectations of her Western readers than she has of Arab readers, but let's not go in that direction.

All of which is pretty disapointing since the article in its entirity is actually pretty interesting. But how many readers drop out after that first gratuitous, baseless and non-contributing insult? So what is my gripe? I guess it would be the wish that our chattering classes would actually practice what they preach. 1) Respect people; 2) Expand your horizons and respect a true diversity of world views including those that view the Western intellectual heritage as a valuable one; and 3) Drop the ludicrous assumption that westerners are responsible for all the world's ills.

Roth-Pierpont ends her article with the anodyne observation that "it is unquestionably good to have stories that we hold in common." True enough, let's get there by presenting them well (as she does) and not insulting people along the way.

By the way, and ending on a happier note after this rantlet, there is a very intriguing book, regrettably out of print, The Past We Share, by E.L. Ravenlagh which diligently tracks those stories that we do in fact already share ranging from Biblical stories such as Joseph and Potiphar's Wife through folkstories of the Middle Ages. Very interesting indeed.

I have to add that I love the picture with which they illustrate the article. It brings back memories of when I was a boy and we lived in Libya. A visit to the souk was always a sensory delight: the colors, the smells, the sounds, the sights, the light and shade of the constant sun.

Photograph: Peter Adams/Getty

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

They also serve who only stand and waite.

So this is where that line is from.
On His Blindness
by John Milton

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.


C.J. Moore is a writer on language, his most recent book available in the US is In Other Words. He has a new book out, avaible currently in the UK, The Untranslatables: The Most Intriguing Words from Around the World. Language and food are the two easiest vectors to understanding a new culture and this book, based on a review by David Profumo in Literary Review, January, 2010 is chockabloc full of intriguing tidbits. From the review:
. . . the Danes say of their own speech, 'it's no language, it's a throat infection'.

As they say in Punjabi to express joy, dil baagh haagh ho-gaya: my heart becomes a garden.

German could give us Korinthenkacker - a 'raisin pooper', or one obsessed with trivia - which, well, deserves wider currency.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Horatius at the Bridge by Macaulay

Horatius at the Bridge
by Thomas Babington Macaulay

Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
To summon his array.

East and west and south and north
The messengers ride fast,
And tower and town and cottage
Have heard the trumpet's blast.
Shame on the false Etruscan
Who lingers in his home,
When Porsena of Clusium
Is on the march for Rome.

The horsemen and the footmen
Are pouring in amain
From many a stately market-place;
From many a fruitful plain;
From many a lonely hamlet,
Which, hid by beech and pine,
Like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest
Of purple Apennine;

From lordly Volaterrae,
Where scowls the far-famed hold
Piled by the hands of giants
For godlike kings of old;
From seagirt Populonia,
Whose sentinels descry
Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops
Fringing the southern sky;

From the proud mart of Pisae,
Queen of the western waves,
Where ride Massilia's triremes
Heavy with fair-haired slaves;
From where sweet Clanis wanders
Through corn and vines and flowers;
From where Cortona lifts to heaven
Her diadem of towers.

Tall are the oaks whose acorns
Drop in dark Auser's rill;
Fat are the stags that champ the boughs
Of the Ciminian hill;
Beyond all streams Clitumnus
Is to the herdsman dear;
Best of all pools the fowler loves
The great Volsinian mere.

But now no stroke of woodman
Is heard by Auser's rill;
No hunter tracks the stag's green path
Up the Ciminian hill;
Unwatched along Clitumnus
Grazes the milk-white steer;
Unharmed the water fowl may dip
In the Volsinian mere.

The harvests of Arretium,
This year, old men shall reap;
This year, young boys in Umbro
Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
And in the vats of Luna,
This year, the must shall foam
Round the white feet of laughing girls
Whose sires have marched to Rome.

There be thirty chosen prophets,
The wisest of the land,
Who always by Lars Porsena
Both morn and evening stand:
Evening and morn the Thirty
Have turned the verse o'er,
Traced from the right on linen white
By mighty seers of yore.

And with one voice the Thirty
Have their glad answer given:
'Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena;
Go forth, beloved of Heaven;
Go, and return in glory
To Clusium's royal dome;
And hang round Nurscia's altars
The golden shields of Rome.'

And now hath every city
Sent up her tale of men;
The foot are fourscore thousand,
The horse are thousands ten.
Before the gates of Sutrium
Is met the great array.
A proud man was Lars Porsena
Upon the trysting day.

For all the Etruscan armies
Were ranged beneath his eye,
And many a banished Roman,
And many a stout ally;
And with a mighty following
To join the muster came
The Tusculan Mamilius,
Prince of the Latian name.

But by the yellow Tiber
Was tumult and affright:
From all the spacious champaign
To Rome men took their flight.
A mile around the city,
The throng stopped up the ways;
A fearful sight it was to see
Through two long nights and days.

For aged folks on crutches,
And women great with child,
And mothers sobbing over babes
That clung to them and smiled,
And sick men borne in litters
High on the necks of slaves,
And troops of sun-burned husbandmen
With reaping-hooks and staves,

And droves of mules and asses
Laden with skins of wine,
And endless flocks of goats and sheep,
And endless herds of kine,
And endless trains of waggons
That creaked beneath the weight
Of corn-sacks and of household goods,
Choked every roaring gate.

Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
Could the wan burghers spy
The line of blazing villages
Red in the midnight sky.
The Fathers of the City,
They sat all night and day,
For every hour some horseman came
With tidings of dismay.

To eastward and to westward
Have spread the Tuscan bands;
Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote
In Crustumerium stands.
Verbenna down to Ostia
Hath wasted all the plain;
Astur hath stormed Janiculum,
And the stout guards are slain.

I wis, in all the Senate,
There was no heart so bold,
But sore it ached, and fast it beat,
When that ill news was told.
Forthwith up rose the Consul,
Up rose the Fathers all;
In haste they girded up their gowns,
And hied them to the wall.

They held a council standing,
Before the River-Gate;
Short time was there, ye well may guess,
For musing or debate.
Out spake the Consul roundly:
'The bridge must straight go down;
For, since Janiculum is lost,
Nought else can save the town.'

Just then a scout came flying,
All wild with haste and fear:
'To arms! to arms! Sir Consul:
Lars Porsena is here.'
On the lows hills to westward
The Consul fixed his eye,
And saw the swarthy storm of dust
Rise fast along the sky.

And nearer fast and nearer
Doth the red whirlwind come;
And louder still and still more loud,
From underneath that rolling cloud,
Is heard the trumpet's war-note proud,
The trampling, and the hum.
And plainly and more plainly
Now through the gloom appears,
Far to left and far to right,
In broken gleams of dark-blue light,
The long array of helmets bright,
The long array of spears.

And plainly and more plainly,
Above that glimmering line,
Now might ye see the banners
Of twelve fair cities shine;
But the banner of proud Clusium
Was highest of them all,
The terror of the Umbrian,
The terror of the Gaul.

And plainly and more plainly
Now might the burghers know,
By port and vest, by horse and crest,
Each warlike Lucumo.
There Cilnius of Arretium
On his fleet roan was seen;
And Astur of the four-fold shield,
Girt with the brand none else may wield,
Tolumnius with the belt of gold,
And dark Verbenna from the hold
By reedy Thrasymene.

Fast by the royal standard,
O'erlooking all the war,
Lars Porsena of Clusium
Sat in his ivory car.
By the right wheel rode Mamilius,
Prince of the Latian name;
And by the left false Sextus,
That wrought the deed of shame.

But when the face of Sextus
Was seen among the foes,
A yell that rent the firmament
From all the town arose.
On the house-tops was no woman
But spat towards him and hissed,
No child but screamed out curses,
And shook its little fist.

But the Consul's brow was sad,
And the Consul's speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe.
'Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?'

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
'To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,

'And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?

'Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?'

Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
A Ramnian proud was he:
'Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
And keep the bridge with thee.'
And out spake strong Herminius;
Of Titian blood was he:
'I will abide on thy left side,
And keep the bridge with thee.'

'Horatius,' quoth the Consul,
'As thou sayest, so let it be.'
And straight against that great array
Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome's quarrel
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old.

Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high,
And the Fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold:
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.

Now while the Three were tightening
Their harnesses on their backs,
The Consul was the foremost man
To take in hand an axe:
And Fathers mixed with Commons
Seized hatchet, bar, and crow,
And smote upon the planks above,
And loosed the props below.

Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
Right glorious to behold,
Come flashing back the noonday light,
Rank behind rank, like surges bright
Of a broad sea of gold.
Four hundred trumpets sounded
A peal of warlike glee,
As that great host, with measured tread,
And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
Rolled slowly towards the bridge's head,
Where stood the dauntless Three.

The Three stood calm and silent,
And looked upon the foes,
And a great shout of laughter
From all the vanguard rose:
And forth three chiefs came spurring
Before that deep array;
To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
And lifted high their shields, and flew
To win the narrow way;

Aunus from green Tifernum,
Lord of the Hill of Vines;
And Seius, whose eight hundred slaves
Sicken in Ilva's mines;
And Picus, long to Clusium
Vassal in peace and war,
Who led to fight his Umbrian powers
From that grey crag where, girt with towers,
The fortress of Nequinum lowers
O]er the pale waves of Nar.

Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus
Into the stream beneath;
Herminius struck at Seius,
And clove him to the teeth;
At Picus brave Horatius
Darted one fiery thrust;
And the proud Umbrian's gilded arms
Clashed in the bloody dust.

Then Ocnus of Falerii
Rushed on the Roman Three;
And Lausulus of Urgo,
The rover of the sea;
And Aruns of Volsinium,
Who slew the great wild boar,
The great wild boar that had his den
Amidst the reeds of Cosa's fen,
And wasted fields, and slaughtered men,
Along Albinia's shore.

Herminius smote down Aruns:
Lartius laid Ocnus low:
Right to the heart of Lausulus
Horatius sent a blow.
'Lie there,' he cried, 'fell pirate!
No more, aghast and pale,
From Ostia's walls the crowd shall mark
The track of thy destroying bark.
No more Campania's hinds shall fly
To woods and caverns when they spy
Thy thrice accursed sail.'

But now no sound of laughter
Was heard among the foes.
A wild and wrathful clamour
From all the vanguard rose.
Six spears' lengths from the entrance
Halted that deep array,
And for a space no man came forth
To win the narrow way.

But hark! the cry is Astur:
And lo! the ranks divide;
And the great Lord of Luna
Comes with his stately stride.
Upon his ample shoulders
Clangs loud the four-fold shield,
And in his hand he shakes the brand
Which none but he can wield.

He smiled on those bold Romans
A smile serene and high;
He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
And scorn was in his eye.
Quoth he, 'The she-wolf's litter
Stand savagely at bay:
But will ye dare to follow,
If Astur clears the way?'

Then, whirling up his broadsword
With both hands to the heights
He rushed against Horatius,
And smote with all his might,
With shield and blade Horatius
Right deftly turned the blow.
The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh;
It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
To see the red blood flow.

He reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space;
Then, like a wild cat mad with wounds
Sprang right at Astur's face.
Through teeth, and skull, and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a hand-breadth out
Behind the Tuscan's head.

And the great Lord of Luna
Fell at that deadly stroke,
As falls on Mount Alvernus
A thunder smitten oak.
Far o'er the crashing forest
The giant's arms lie spread;
And the pale augurs, muttering low,
Gaze on the blasted head.

On Astur's throat Horatius
Right firmly pressed his heel,
And thrice and four times tugged amain,
Ere he wrenched out the steel.
'And see,' he cried, 'the welcome,
Fair guests, that waits you here!
What noble Lucumo comes next
To taste our Roman cheer?'

But at his haughty challenge
A sullen murmur ran,
Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread,
Along that glittering van.
There lacked not men of prowess,
Nor men of lordly race;
For all Etruria's noblest
Were round the fatal place.

But all Etruria's noblest
Felt their hearts sink to see
On the earth the bloody corpses,
In the path the dauntless Three:
And, from the ghastly entrance
Where those bold Romans stood,
All shrank, like boys who unaware,
Ranging the woods to start a hare,
Come to the mouth of the dark lair
Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
Lies amidst bones and blood.

Was none who would be foremost
To lead such dire attack:
But those behind cried 'Forward!'
And those before cried 'Back!'
And backward now and forward
Wavers the deep array;
And on the tossing sea of steel,
To and fro the standards reel;
And the victorious trumpet-peal
Dies fitfully away.

Yet one man for one moment
Strode out before the croud;
Well known was he to all the Three,
And they gave gim greeting loud.
'Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
Now welcome to thy home!
Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
Here lies the road to Rome.'

Thrice looked he at the city;
Thrice looked he at the dead;
And thrice came on in fury,
And thrice turned back in dread:
And, white with fear and hatred,
Scowled at the narrow way
Where, wallowing in a pool of blood,
The bravest Tuscans lay.

But meanwhile axe and lever
Have manfully been plied;
And now the bridge hangs tottering
Above the boiling tide.
'Come back, come back, Horatius!'
Loud cried the Fathers all.
'Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
Back, ere the ruin fall!'

Back darted Spurius Lartius;
Herminius darted back:
And, as they passed, beneath their feet
They felt the timbers crack.
But when they turned their faces,
And on the farther shore
Saw brave Horatius stand alone,
They would have crossed once more.

But with a crash like thunder
Fell every loosened beam,
And, like a dam, the mighty wreck
Lay right athwart the stream:
And a long shout of triumph
Rose from the walls of Rome,
As to the highest turret-tops
Was splashed the yellow foam.

And, like a horse unbroken
When first he feels the rein,
The furious river struggled hard,
And tossed his tawny mane,
And burst the curb and bounded,
Rejoicing to be free,
And whirling down, in fierce career,
Battlement, and plank, and pier,
Rushed headlong to the sea.

Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind;
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
'Down with him!' cried false Sextus,
With a smile on his pale face.
'Now yield thee,' cried Lars Porsena,
'Now yield thee to our grace!'

Round turned he, as not deigning
Those craven ranks to see;
Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
To Sextus nought spake he;
But he saw on Palatins
The white porch of his home;
And he spake to the noble river
That rolls by the towers of Rome.

'Oh, Tiber! father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
Take thou in charge this day!'
So he spake, and speaking sheathe
The good sword by his side
And with his harness on his back,
Plunged headlong in the tide.

No sound of joy or sorrow
Was heard from either bank
But friends and foes in dumb surprise
With parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing where he sank;
And when above the surges
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.

But fiercely ran the current,
Swollen high by months of rain:
And fast his blood was flowing;
And he was sore in pain,
And heavy with his armour,
And spent with changing blows:
And oft they thought him sinking,
But still again he rose.

Never, I ween, did swimmer,
In such an evil case,
Struggle through such a raging flood
Safe to the landing place.
But his limbs were borne up bravely
By the brave heart within,
And our good father Tiber
Bare bravely up his chin.

'Curse on him!' quoth false Sextus;
'Will not the villain drown?
But for this stay, ere close of day
We should have sacked the town!'
'Heaven help him!' quoth Lars Porsena,
'And bring him safe to shore;
For such a gallant feat of arms
Was never seen before.'

And now he feels the bottom;
Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers;
To press his gory hands;
And now, with shouts and clapping,
And noise of weeping loud,
He enters through the River-Gate,
Borne by the joyous crowd.

They gave him of the corn-land,
That was of public right,
As much as two strong oxen
Could plough from morn till night;
And they made a molten image,
And set it up on high,
And there it stands unto this day
To witness if I lie.

It stands in the Comitium,
Plain for all folk to see;
Horatius in his harness,
halting upon one knee:
And underneath is written,
In letters all of gold,
How valiantly he kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.

And still his name sounds stirring
Unto the men of Rome,
As the trumpet-blast that cries to them
To charge the Volscian home;
And wives still pray to Juno
For boys with hearts as bold
As his who kept the bridge so well
In the brave days of old.

And in the nights of winter,
When the cold north winds blow,
And the long howling of the wolves
Is heard amidst the snow;
When round the lonely cottage
Roars loud the tempest's din,
And the good logs of Algidus
Roar louder yet within;

When the oldest cask is opened,
And the largest lamp is lit;
When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
And the kid turns on the spit;
When young and old in circle
Around the firebrands close;
When the girls are weaving baskets,
And the lads are shaping bows;

When the goodman mends his armour,
And trims his helmet's plume;
When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.

Horatius at the Bridge

What a rousing, inspiring story so well rendered by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay. Even young ones can enjoy this poem for its cadences and beautifully strange names and places.

The weather has been fiercely cold this week with school cancelled on Friday. One of my sons wandered in to curl up in a blanket. I reread him this poem for the first time in four or five years and we both still enjoyed it as much as yore.

What great lines and vignettes. This one always gets a laugh.
Was none who would be foremost
To lead such dire attack:
But those behind cried 'Forward!'
And those before cried 'Back!'

I love this for the image of handing down tales:
And in the nights of winter,
When the cold north winds blow,
And the long howling of the wolves
Is heard amidst the snow;
When round the lonely cottage
Roars loud the tempest's din,
And the good logs of Algidus
Roar louder yet within;

When the oldest cask is opened,
And the largest lamp is lit;
When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
And the kid turns on the spit;
When young and old in circle
Around the firebrands close;
When the girls are weaving baskets,
And the lads are shaping bows;

When the goodman mends his armour,
And trims his helmet's plume;
When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.

And yet another.
And straight against that great array
Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome's quarrel
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old.

See the next post for the whole poem.

Upon the rack of this tough world

Line from William Shakespeare's King Lear, referenced in Alistair MacLean's Bear Island.
O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

Snow Angels

Debut novel by James Thompson. Set in Finland, a small town Inspector must solve a series of baffling and gruesome murders. Really most appropriate for adults but a very compelling read and therefore might be considered for a Twelfth Grader who likes mysteries but not otherwise inclined to read. See the review here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Blood Oath

Blood Oath is the debut novel of Christopher Farnsworth to be released May 2010. Just completed it. Out of my normal pattern of reading but enjoyed it. See the review here.

There is a tide in the affairs of reading . . .

Or so it seems sometimes. But a mighty peculiar tide. In the past few months I seem to keep coming across sayings from an ancient Greek philosopher, Solon. I have for years been aware of him as one of those other names behind the headliners Aristotle, Socrates, etc. Is he somehow suddenly more topical, is it simply a random pattern? I don't know but perhaps I better brush up on him. The latest sighting:
If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, whence every one must take an equal portion, most people would be contented to take their own and depart. - Solon

There are reasons for optimism

McKinsey & Company have recently released a new report, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools. McKinsey is one of those organizations that generally invests a good deal of time, money and intellectual effort into producing insightful reports (for example, see Education Knowledge Highlights.) In this instance their primary conclusions are not particularly controversial: there is large variation in performance between schools and between school systems across the US, there are large variations in performance based on demographics, that the US education system is inefficient in terms of resources consumed for results produced compared to other countries, and that there is a high economic cost to the nation based on scholastic underperformance. Heroically, they attempt to quantify that cost (in the hundreds of billions up to the low trillions depending on assumptions and baselines chosen.)

While their numbers are certainly wrong, given the weakness of the underlying data, they at least provide a ballpark estimate. I am also reasonably sceptical of the comparability of the data they use for comparing US versus other countries (Program for International Student Assessment, PISA).

McKinsey's themes are limited, undramatic and straight-forward: better data is required, funding is an issue, minorities are ill-served and schools are important. They properly emphasize that there are reasons for optimism and that there are plenty of avenues to explore that hold out the prospect for material progress.

The weakness of the report, from my perspective, relates to the international comparisons as mentioned above; the disconnect between the supposed comparisons and the economic productivity of the US (if the US has been performing so dismally on education for the past 30 years, how is it that the US economy has performed so comparatively well versus the nominal educational superstars?); and finally, the dearth of recommendations (how do you optimize results within the constraints of the US circumstances?) The report is a worthwhile addition to the overall literacy and education literature. There were a couple of insights that you won't see anywhere else such as:
As a rule, schools in poor neighborhoods spend far less per pupil than schools in their nearby affluent suburbs. Since teacher salaries are one of the biggest components of district cost structures, affluent districts routinely outbid poorer ones for the best teaching talent (in addition to offering typically better working conditions and easier-to-teach children).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rumour, the swiftest of all evils

Francis Wheen in the January 2010 Literary Review, has a piece, A Wink and A Nudge, of which it would be nice to see more. The book being reviewed is Cass Sunstein's On Rumors. I enjoy the review in part because it is not mealy mouthed as so many reviews are. Wheen slices and dices with a fair amount of relish.

The other reason it is an enjoyable review in its own right (possiby more enjoyable than the book being reviewed) is that Wheen holds the author to at least some minimal level of intellectual rigor and doesn't let him get by with blithe throw-away assertions. The juxtaposition of Sunstein's assertions with Wheen's ripostes demonstrate very clearly which is the more informed thinker.
It's as if rumours never existed before the Internet. In the era of bloggers and Google, according to Sunstein, 'audiences can be manipulated in order to believe things that, whether or not literally false, are not exactly true'. He is unimpressed by the argument that blogs and Google also make it easier than ever to correct false rumours. 'Often the truth fails to catch up with a lie.' Nothing new there: the complaint that a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth pulls its boots on has been heard for centuries. You'll find it in Virgil (Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum - 'Rumour, the swiftest of all evils') and in the prologue to Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II: 'Open your ears; for which of you will stop / The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks? / I, from the orient to the drooping west, / Making the wind my post-horse ...' Sunstein cites neither of these, presumably because they would sabotage his ahistorical implication that the bush telegraph is a by-product of YouTube and Facebook.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Define: Haruspex

Haruspex, from an article (The Last Book Party by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Harper's Magazine, March 2009).
There is avid speculation as to whom Rich will be writing about this year; she's seen as some kind of haruspex, and everybody is wondering whose entrails she'll be reading this time around.


Main Entry: ha-rus-pex
Function: noun
Etymology: Latin, from haru- (akin to chorde gut, cord) + -spex, from specere to look - more at yarn, spy
Date: 1584

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Death on the Ice

Just finished Death on the Ice by Cassie Brown and Harold Horwood. The blurb below from the book says it all. A gripping and moving tale. The image of the father wrapping his arms around his two sons trying to keep them warm as they together died of the cold, frozen together in death, is one that is hard to dislodge among the many displays of heroism, resoluteness, and humanity. Regrettably out of print but good for anyone interested in adventure, disaster stories, or maritime tales. Probably 10th grade and up.

From the blurb:
Each year for generations, poor ill-clad Nefoundland fishermen sailed out "to the ice" to hunt seals in the hope of a few pennies in wages from the prosperous merchants of St. John's. The year 1914 witnessed the worst in the long line of tragedies that were part of their harsh way of life.

For two long, freezing days and nights a party of seal hunters - one hundred thirty-two men - were left stranded on an icefield floating in the North Atlantic in winter. They were thinly dressed, with almost no food, and with no hope of shelter on the ice against the snow or the constant, bitter winds. To survive they had to keep moving, always moving. Those who lay down to rest died.

Heroes emerged - one man froze his lips badly, biting off the icicles that were blinding his comrades. Other men froze in their tracks, or went mad with pain and walked off the edge of the icefield. All the while, ships steamed about nearby, unnoticing. And by the time help arrived, two thirds of the men were dead.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

George Orwell on the intelligentsia

From an intriguing essay by George Orwell in May, 1945, Notes on Nationalism.
One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

It is interesting that, in a completely different set of circumstances and historical context, Orwell was wrestling with a concept with which we are still plagued today. Orwell defines nationalism in such a fashion to cover what he is getting at. Today we call it identity politics. But it still amounts to the same thing, the defining of a peoples on some narrow characteristic or feature and denying them agency as being fully human and subject to all the rich variety of all humans.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Think it out

H.G. Wells:
It is not much good thinking of a thing unless you think it out.

Quoted by G.k. Chesterton in What I Saw in America.

Montaigne on the dangers of over-interpretation

Montaigne, The Complete Works:
Once you start digging down into a piece of writing, there is simply no slant or meaning ... , which the human mind cannot find there.

Somehow I want to pair this with Karl Popper's quotation:
Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.

G.K. Chesterton in What I Saw in America.
It may have seemed something less than a compliment to compare the American Constitution to the Spanish Inquisition. But oddly enough, it does involve a truth; and still more oddly perhaps, it does involve a compliment. The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Trained camels

From Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading. And here I thought I was an enthusiastic reader. Now I realize I am just a piker.
To avoid parting with his collection of 117,000 books while travelling, the avid reader and Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, has them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.