Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Old Books

After my recent post on The Maul and the Pear Tree I came across this article which relates to my thoughts on history and its meaning for the reader.

Neil Postman writes,
There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

In my post yesterday I noticed what Postman did - The constancy of human nature. Lewis had a different view and I do like Lewis. Perhaps what a reader sees in history depends on his/her "mood" or "situation" at the time. I do think history valuable, or perhaps I should say invaluable perhaps because while human failings through the ages are similar it is easier to see them exposed as they are in a different era, where we have less attachment.

The article goes on to say that Lewis stressed the importance of primary sources. I certainly have no argument with him there.

That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

It seems self evident but it is a lesson many journalists would do well to take to heart!

Monday, November 26, 2007

History as a reminder

They say that history is valuable to teach us what mistakes not to repeat. I have thought for some time now that what it teaches us instead is that human nature doesn't really change much, that the flaws we see in the present - in individuals, in our community and in the world - have always existed and likely always will. These human weaknesses persist over time although they may present themselves with different trappings. My present reading has only confirmed this belief. But I like reading history nevertheless.

The Maul and the Pear Tree
is an early P. D. James mystery but it is non-fiction and co-authored with T. A. Critchley. It tells the true story of several gruesome and seemingly senseless murders which were committed in a dockside area of London in 1811. I had read the book many years ago but had forgotten the plot and the conclusion completely so it still read like a mystery to me.

The first murder took the lives of four people in a household - a shopkeeper, his wife, their infant son and a servant boy. The second set of murders took place nearby and not long after. An older publican, his wife and a servant woman were similarly bludgeoned to death and their throats cut. Who committed these horrific crimes? The authors take us through the maze of clues to be considered by the amateurish "police" forces of the times and documents the mostly ineffective reactions of the government of the day.

We can understand that the forensic methods we have now were not available to the authorities then, but what strikes me is the similarity in the lack of communication, the lack of thought and a deficiency of what I can only call "intellligence" or common sense by authorities that we often see missing today in incidents like the tasering of the poor Polish man at Vancouver International Airport.

What is also similar is the reaction of the public. The morbid interest in the gory details of the crimes, the speculation, the fear aroused in the neighbourhood, the criticism of the authorities when no solid arrests were made (although several unfortunate men were held on rather flimsy evidence for some time) and the lurid press - none of this is unfamiliar although over a century separates us from the residents of Wapping.

I won't spoil it for anyone by disclosing the ending. P. D. James is an excellent writer and a certain humour and irony shows through her account of the somewhat keystone cops like investigation. If you want to get a flavour of what this book is like you can read excerpts of it online.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Did you Guess the Giller?

Last week they announced the winner of the Giller Prize so I am too late to enter the Guess the Giller Contest.

Those of us who are readers might have loved to have a paid trip to a Literary Festival as well as the autographed set of books on the Giller short list. Did you vote?

The Guessthegiller.ca contest ran this year in over 20 public library systems and was promoted through Scotiabank’s 950 branches across the country. A recent electronic tally of on-line votes show nearly 4,000 people have cast ballots for who they thought would emerge the winner on Nov. 6. The contest offers a grand prize of an all-expense paid trip for two to one of Canada’s pre-eminent literary festivals. The runner-up prizes are complete sets of this year’s shortlisted books autographed by the authors.

I wonder if this was promoted at our local library? They haven't yet drawn for the winner of the contest. The draw is Nov. 20th.

If you haven't read the books you might still like to see the excerpts they provided on the Guess the Giller site.

The end ranking of the listed books on the voting site is:

1. Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air - The winner!

2.M. G. Vassanji's Assassin's Song

3.Michael Ondatje's Divisedero

4. Daniel Poliquin's A Secret Between Us

5. Elizabeth York's Effigy

If I have one criticism of the setup on the Guess the Giller site it is that the print in the excerpts is too hard to see. They should provide a zoom. Love the way the pages turn though just like a real book. They had this in NANOWRIMO too when I did it and it was neat to see your words as if they were published!
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)