Sunday, October 11, 2015

EBooks and Traditional Books

The controversy around traditional books verses eBooks is one that raises emotions akin to differences surrounding such hot button issues as religion and politics. Having jumped into the world of digital books approximately three years ago, I have formed definite opinions on the issue. As it involves new technology bumping into an ancient human activity, namely reading, the topic is tied to the profound changes that the digital age is having on humanity.

I think that in regards to this subject, a few points relevant to the history of books are important to keep in mind. When the printing press first became popular in the fifteenth century, folks, mostly scholars, protested that the new machines produced books of much lower quality than handwritten tomes.

In the twentieth century, when paperbacks first became popular, there was protest over their low quality as opposed to hardcovers. First, of course, this history illustrates that changes in the way that we read books are commonly resisted as folks defend the old ways. I am not completely dismissing the above arguments. After all, I think that it could be argued that aesthetically, handwritten tomes were far superior to printed books or, more importantly, that mass-produced paperbacks lack many of the merits of hardcovers.

I would contend that we place too much value on cheap paperbacks and lower quality hardcovers. I do not see all that much tactile or aesthetic appeal to these lower grade books.

Much has been said and written about sensory satisfaction gained with physical books. People often comment upon the perceptible sensations associated with them. Some even remark about their aroma. But when it comes to paperbacks, I question the value of the experience imparted. I am so much more appreciative of the positive sensations garnered with higher quality, more substantive books.

If one wants to fight for traditional books, I say make it about quality books that are worth it. Of course, for a personal collector, the issue of cost comes into play. I fantasize about a library of high quality hardcovers. A perusal of such books online indicates that price escalates with quality.

For someone such as myself who likes to delve deeply into books, the benefits of eBooks are immense. I can, and do, take numerous notes and make comments, as well as highlight passages. This would destroy a conventional book. I recently did read an old-fashioned book, and I filled it with post-it notes in lieu of the electronic notes that I am now used to.

Likewise, the copy and paste function is invaluable for bloggers and others who need to use quotations from a book.  As I do look up unfamiliar words, the dictionary function is very convenient and useful. I even use the word search, which is better than an index. Of course, particularly with history books, my ability to search the web for additional information, maps, charts, etc., greatly enhances my reading experience.

I have also shifted to a system of just in time buying of books. Instead of hoarding tomes, some of which I will likely never get to in my entire lifetime, I now download the instance at which I am ready to begin a new read.

With all of that, I do not discount the value of traditional books. I have made several references to quality hardcovers. I believe that these may represent the future of conventional books much like vinyl records have made a comeback among folks who enjoy collecting music.  I think that it is a good bet that eBooks will eventually replace soft covers. I am aware that sales of old-fashioned books have stabilized, but as digital book technology continues to get better and more economical, I would surmise the erosion in paperback sales will commence again.

I do have a vision of my fantasy library. It would be filled with the high quality hard cover tomes. Though I already own a very few of them, cost has sadly prevented me from embarking upon any real collecting. I wonder, however, if I did possess such an impressive library, if the great books would still sit on a shelf while I read digital versions of them. There are just too many advantages to eBooks!

I recently read a traditional book. I have become so dependent on note taking this was the shocking result.

If one considers the history of positive human progress, such progress is often aided by advances in communication. EBooks are part of the larger digital evolution that allows folks to instantly communicate with one another and to access vast reservoirs of human knowledge. Digital books give us access to millions of books, relatively cheaply, at the press of a few points on a keyboard or screen. They add to our ability to cross reference information and utilize words much more easily than ever before. These advantages cannot be overstated.  In my opinion, this will only enhance the spread of knowledge and ideas, which has traditionally led to great benefits for humanity.

I do know that many of my readers will disagree with many of my points here. Folks are understandably attached to old-fashioned books. For me, the real virtue of a tome is its contents, not its package. However, I do place great value in the kind of traditional book that I think deserves to be valued. Nevertheless, I would argue that anything that makes the contents of books more accessible, understandable and interactive is a really good thing.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch by George Eliot is an extraordinary novel. The book has so many plot threads, major characters and significant themes that I struggled a bit when it came time to choose the content of this post.  The fact that the novel is so famous and so much has been written about it only exacerbated my difficulties as I strove to say something different about it.

The book’s themes include the role of women in society, an exploration of provincial versus cosmopolitan thinking, the degeneration of marriage and relationships, serious musing on art and aesthetics, fate versus free will and many other topics.

The primary narrative focus, more or less, is on Dorothea Brooke, later Dorothea Casaubon. A pious and strong willed young woman, Dorothea strives for a meaningful life. She endeavors to be the ideal woman. An ideal woman, the narrative reminds us, is someone like St. Theresa who sacrificed her life for Christian ideals.

Dorothea is drawn to and marries the Reverend Edward Casaubon. The Reverend is a religious intellectual. He is a driven man who has devoted his life to completing a monumental treatise called The Key to All Mythologies, which ties ancient mythology with Christianity.  After Casaubon’s death, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, a young artist, become involved in a romance that is marred by serious social complications

Another plot thread involves Tertius Lydgate. He is a doctor who champions progressive forms of medical care. As the book progresses, he woos and subsequently marries Rosamond Vincy. As Lydgate falls into debt, the couple’s home life becomes acrimonious.

Fred Vincy is Rosamond’s brother. This young man is earnest but irresponsible. His attempted courtship of Mary Garth, another young woman with a strong personality, weaves another thread into the narrative.

As the story progresses, the various plot threads intersect and play important roles in the various themes that are embodied within this book.

There are fans of this novel who contend that it is the finest ever written. While I would not go that far, in my opinion, it is among the finest. It has strong and complex characters, a compelling and interesting plot, fascinating themes, some of which touch upon the most basic and important elements of human existence. I also found Eliot’s writing to be suburb. It is down to earth at times; at other points, it is sublime. All of this combines into a wonderfully brilliant, aesthetic package.

As I do with many complex works, I am going to concentrate on only one of the many interesting aspects of Eliot’s work.

Disintegration of Relationships

In this novel, Eliot masterfully describes how the warmth of love can degenerate over time. The author looks at two separate couples, Dorothea and Reverend Casaubon, and Lydgate and Rosamond.

Dorothea and Casaubon are each impressive and nuanced characters in and of themselves. Their pairing adds intricacy to their respective complexities. Upon meeting Casaubon, Dorothea is immediately drawn to his religious intellect and conviction. Though he is stodgy, bookish and much older than her, Dorothea sees him as a perfect life partner.

The two quickly marry. However, Casaubon’s relative mental isolation and lack of warm emotions, as well as his inability to connect to Dorothea, cause friction. Casaubon’s somewhat understandable jealousy of the budding friendship between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw compounds the problem.

Eliot’s depiction of how the relationship goes from unquestioning love to acrimony is brilliant. Dorothea slowly comes to realize that she is looking for things in Casaubon that he is not giving her. Though one clearly senses that Eliot’s sympathies lie with Dorothea, Casaubon is not portrayed as a monster. In fact, Dorothea is shown to miss certain aspects of his inner self that could have helped ameliorate the couple’s problems had she been sensitive to them.

At one point it is observed,

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

Dorothea’s evolution from near worship of Casaubon to a kind of wary cynicism is believable and complex, as well as interesting.

The other couple, Lydgate and Rosamond, is almost as interesting. The pair quickly falls in love and marries. However, with time, rancor develops between the two. Lydgate is a man of scientific curiosity who enjoys experimentation. The materialistic Rosamond soon becomes bored with him and his interests. She begins to flirt with various men. When the two begin to fall into financial difficulties, the narcissistic Rosamond resorts to subterfuge in an effort to thwart Lydgate’s attempts to curtail their expenditures.

As with Dorothea and Casaubon, Eliot adds a lot of complexity to this relationship.  Though the author seems to mostly sympathize with Lydgate, the Doctor is shown to have shortcomings too. He seems completely unable to see things from Rosamond’s point of view and begins every conflict by eschewing all compromise. Though he cannot dominate or control Rosamond, it is clear that he would like to.

Once again, Eliot is at her best when she portrays the erosion of this relationship. The way that Rosamond transforms from a loving bride to an uncaring, deceptive and narcissistic wife is portrayed with great literary skill.

A vicious cycle is illustrated. As Lydgate’s troubles mount, Rosamond reacts with less sympathy and more criticism. Thus, Lydgate begins to confide in her less and less and begins to keep things from her. As Rosamond realizes this, she becomes even more embittered.

There are many common themes shared by both of these relationships. Each involves two people who have trouble understanding each other’s feelings. Even if one looks at Dorothea and Lydgate as the more sympathetic members of the marriages, each of them has trouble understanding the inner life of their respective mates.

Both relationships begin warmly and gradually degenerate into misunderstandings, lost opportunities to connect, selfishness, etc. All this is portrayed believably and with complexity. The flaws in these relationships tie into what seems to be a major theme of this novel, that is, the harmful effects of people not being able to see things from other people’s point of view.

These two marriages end up in very bad states indeed. In contrast to what one would likely expect in a novel set in modern times, divorce was not an option for these characters. This changes the entire dynamic of the situation. In the world of the nineteenth century, there is no escape from the other person. Obviously this has an effect upon the feelings and the behaviors of the characters.

At one point, Lydgate contemplates the bad direction that his relationship with his wife is going in and is apprehensive as to the result of further deterioration.

It was as if a fracture in delicate crystal had begun, and he was afraid of any movement that might make it fatal. His marriage would be a mere piece of bitter irony if they could not go on loving each other.

When Dorothea and Lydgate actually talk, a moment of understanding comes to Dorothea when she realizes that Lydgate and herself have shared some common experiences in regard to their relationships. When it dawns on her that Lydgate’s experiences with matrimony in some ways have paralleled her own, Dorothea reacts,

“Dorothea felt her heart beginning to beat faster. Had he that sorrow too?”

Eliot’s depiction of these relationships heading into trouble is simply brilliant. They are believable, complex, and while at times painful to read about, have great aesthetic value. This is but one of many reasons that Middlemarch is truly a great novel.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Late Walk - Poem by Robert Frost

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.

Robert Frost has always been a favorite of mine. His poems are such a popular subject of study in the American education system that some folks might find him a little passé. Contrary to this view, I would argue that the reason that he is so popular is a function of the enormous aesthetic value of his works.

As I have been rereading some of his poems, I had some thoughts that I wanted to share about “A Late Walk Poem.”

I find this verse to be extremely poignant. Obviously, it represents the decline of life. Frost presents us with the imagery of a harvested field, birds migrating ahead of the approaching winter, withered weeds and a bare tree. There is a reference to sadness.

I think that the imagery and words here are very effective. When I read this I can almost smell the scent of autumn in the air and feel the chilled air against my skin. The best of poets is capable in eliciting such memories for me.

The last few lines of this work make it very distinctive. The aster flower often represents love and enchantment. It is the one flower remaining. It seems that the voice of the poem is experiencing decline and may be nearing the end, but his love and sense of enchantment is still intact.

In the midst of the darkness of decline and death, there is love and human connection. This is a bittersweet reference, however. The flower seems to represent the last of the positive emotions. In some ways, this adds to the sadness of verse.

This level of pathos surrounding death and loss seems to me to be common in Frost’s work. The poet has such a way when he describes the grayness that seems inherent in life. Frost is not a nihilist, he values love and other positive emotions, as is illustrated in this poem. In his work, however, it is apparent that all things in life are marked by the shadow that death and loss brings to everyone.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn is an essential book for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in the history of government in general. First published in 1968, this book is profoundly important in understanding the key intellectual roots and issues related to the Revolution and the founding of the American State and Federal Governments. The version of the book that I read had more recent material added by the author. Folks who I know in academia tell me that this book is required reading for many history students. There is good reason for this.

To comprehend the basis of this work, it is important to understand the role that pamphleteers played in the intellectual conversation and discourse of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English and Colonial societies. Pamphlets, ranging from a few pages to dozens of pages long, were essentially essays that were circulated throughout English and Colonial society.

Bailyn writes,

“These pamphlets form part of the vast body of English polemical and journalistic literature in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries to which the greatest men of letters contributed”

These tracts were produced in droves by English and Colonial writers. They covered social, religious and political issues. They ranged from serious analyses of issues, to biting parody, to scathing personal attacks. The author goes on to describe them,

“Explanatory as well as declarative, and expressive of the beliefs, attitudes, and motivations as well as the professed goals of those who led and supported the Revolution, the pamphlets are the distinct literature of the revolution.”

The writers varied from common middle class folks to some of the greatest minds of the time including David Hume, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to name just a few. Some pamphlets themselves were famous, Paine’s Common Sense being a notable example. Pamphleteers would often engage in “conversations” and “arguments,” one writer responding to another, who would respond in turn, and so forth.

Bailyn conducted meticulous research on tens of thousands of these documents. As a result, he yielded great results. He references dozens of these works within this book. The author mines multiple intellectual threads that fueled not only the rebellion, but also the thinking that led to the eventual construction of the American Constitution.

Multiple subjects are covered in extreme detail, ranging from any government’s right to tax, individual rights, balance of governmental powers, religion and government, and slavery, to name just a few. Most of these ideas and controversies dated back to before the English Civil War. Bailyn picks these threads up via the various pamphlets that addressed them. The evolution of relevant ideas is often followed for over a century, as they were eventually taken up by Colonial thinkers, who in turn shaped them through the American War for Independence and up to the ratification of the United States Constitution.

This book is detailed and digs into many of these ideologies and issues in great depth. It is instrumental in furthering the understanding of the Revolution as well as of the history of government itself. Many concepts and conflicts pertaining to current day democracies were formulated during this period and will be familiar to anyone who now follows current events and politics. It is striking just how many of these issues are still relevant and debated today. Issues such as the power of government, Federal verses local control, taxes, etc. are still hotly contested in the twenty-first century.

I must mention the current debate in America between those who contend that the American Revolution was driven by Christian Ideals verses those who contend that Enlightenment Secular Ideals drove it. While this issue is not directly addressed in this work, this book makes it clear that both played a part in all sorts of complex ways. Reading this book has made me understand how the entire premise of the debate is untenable.

Bailyn’s writing can be somewhat dry at times. Also, a basic knowledge of the American Revolution, The United States Constitution, English history especially as it pertains to the Magna Carter, The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution will be extremely helpful for prospective readers. As a result of the above, this book might bore those who are just casually interested in these subjects. Thus, I would recommend this work only to the very interested. For those who have such a strong interest in these topics however, this book is a gold mine.