Literature In Other Languages

I grew up in the United States.  English is my native language, and, while I am not fluent in any other language, I have varying levels of skill in reading a few others.  In the past few years I have become fascinated with linguistics, not in the Noam Chomsky sense, bur rather in the history and evolution of languages.

This fascination with the history of languages has progressed over to literature in other languages.  Growing up in the American school system, the majority of books, short stories, dramas, and poetry that I read were written in English, usually by American and British writers.  This is not necessarily a mark of provincialism; English language literature has a very long and distinguished history that spans centuries, continents, and genres.  Moreover, there are nuances in the original language that just cannot be captured in translation–save for occasionally with explanatory footnotes.

It is not that I have been unexposed to literature in other languages, but the exposure is generally limited.  In my experience, a world literature course covers the following materials: (1) Ancient epic poems, specifically those in ancient Greek (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and Latin (The Aeneid).  Sometimes this includes Sumerian (Gilgamesh), and Old English (Beowulf); (2) English language novels from nations once part of the British Empire; (3) The Bible and maybe the occasional other religious text; and (4) fiction in one of five other European languages–Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, or German.  Occasionally a European writer who wrote in a different language (like Henrik Ibsen) will sneak through if he is famous enough, but they are few and far between.

I am not knocking such classes.  Everything I have mentioned thus far is worth reading.  But there is so much out there from so many different places, and it also merits consideration.  For example, I have more than a passing familiarity with Yiddish and Hebrew literature.  Hebrew literature comprises everything from Biblical texts through the modern state of Israel.  Yiddish literature is a much more recent phenomenon, only a couple hundred years old.  Both are extremely worthwhile for the reader.  There are so many languages out there, large and small, which have a great body literature that deserves to be read.

It is not actually difficult to find out about foreign literature.  Wikipedia is the new repository of all human knowledge (a blessing and a curse).  There are also, of course, extremely flawed lists ranking works of world literature, but I am skeptical of such lists.  Greatness is a nebulous concept that often suspiciously coincides with the list maker’s personal agenda.  The Nobel Prize is even more suspect in determining worthwhile literature.  There are a lot reasons for my distrust but primarily it is because Nobel has a long track record of missing many of the world’s greatest and most important writers.  Tolstoy, Twain, Zola, Chekhov, Joyce, Ibsen, James, Auden, Woolf, Pound, Achebe, Nabokov, Strindberg, Brecht, and Borges are only a few of the notable names the Swedish Academy has overlooked.  Proust died too soon, and Kafka’s major work was published posthumously.

Although the vast majority of readers of this blog are from English-speaking countries (especially the United States), readers from elsewhere occasionally stumble on my posts.  Probably most of these hits are because of my Who Do You Think You Are Recaps, but to all of you who speak a language other than English, I have a question for you, and I would greatly appreciate any time you take to answer.  What is the general consensus for the great works of literature in your language?  Do you agree or no?  Finally, what works do you believe will stand the test of time and should be included in a world canon?

Pride & Prejudice & Video Diaries

Taking a break from my normal topics of discussion, I wanted to promote a series of YouTube shorts that I have been following for weeks now.

Jane Austen is probably the most adaptable of all English novelists, and each generation is able to reinterpret her works as they see fit.  If it is possible for an author to have a cult following while still being an integral part of the Western Literary Canon, that is Jane Austen.  Pride & Prejudice is undoubtedly her most beloved novel (although please read the equally wonderful Persuasion), which is why there are two miniseries, multiple films–including a Bollywood adaptation, stage plays, musicals, and more literary sequels and adaptations than you can shake a stick at (most famously Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is a brand unto itself), one with zombies.

It is therefore only natural that Elizabeth Bennet and the rest of the denizens of Pride & Prejudice should eventually find their way to the Internet.  Thus we have the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a YouTube web series which adapts and modernizes Austen’s novel.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are an ongoing series of video entries featuring Lizzie Bennet, a graduate student in mass communications. New videos are uploaded to a YouTube page every Monday and Thursday.  Lizzie is telling the entire world about her life, while in essence retelling the events of Pride & Prejudice (and yes, the video diaries begin with the exact same opening line as the book).

It’s an extremely clever concept, and it works really well.  As befitting a mass communications graduate student, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries makes use of multiple media beyond YouTube, including a home page, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

What I have liked most of all is how effortlessly the writers have adapted the book to today’s society.  If we are honest, Pride & Prejudice is an extremely difficult book to adapt.  The primary reason is that the role of women in society has changed.  In Austen’s day, women, particularly of a certain class, were meant to be wives and mothers and that’s about it.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries have been rather deft at handling this, and softening some of Austen’s sharpest edges (for example her portrayals of Lydia and Mrs. Bennet).

The other thing that has really impressed me about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries is the effective way in which the historical reality has been updated to fit the modern time.  There are multiple examples, but the obvious one is the entail, the plot point that drives everything in Pride & Prejudice.  One may also infer that the entail is the reason why there were five Bennet daughters to begin with.  (If you need further enlightenment, we can talk more in the comments section of this post.)  Entails, at least in the United States where the Diaries are set, are a thing of the past (good riddance), but the writers were pretty clever in how they updated it.

And then there are the characters themselves.  At the moment there are only four major characters.  Lizzie, Jane, and Lydia Bennet, and Charlotte (Mr. Collins has made an appearance; it’s a riot).  Inevitably the first question will be what about Kitty and Mary.  I don’t want to spoil that, but trust me, I laughed when I found out about Kitty and Mary, especially the former.

If you are familiar with the book, you’ll notice there are major characters I have said nothing about.  Just so you know, Darcy has not yet appeared.

I’m embedding the first episode here.  Check it out, and then watch the rest.  They are surprisingly addictive.

The Other Side Of The Nobel Prize

Earlier this month the Nobel Prizes were announced.  Every year they cause controversy of some kind.  Occasionally the science awards cause a minor stir, but usually it is the Literature and especially the Peace Prizes that make the biggest waves.  (The Economics Prize is not a real Nobel–i.e. established by Alfred Nobel’s will–which is why the winner is announced after the other prizes are awarded.)

I have no expertise in medicine, physics, or chemistry, so I cannot speak to how deserving this year’s recipients are, or really any year’s recipients.  Occasionally a deserving person is ignored (Robert Gallo), but usually the public just accepts the results with a smile and a shrug.  This year’s Medicine Prize caused a tiny bit of a controversy.  One of the winners, Ralph Steinman, had died three days before the prize was awarded, and posthumous winners are forbidden.  The fact that the Nobel Committee chose not to rescind the award however, met with universal approval, so that hardly counts as a controversy.  Neither of this year’s Physics or Chemistry Prizes (for the discoveries of dark energy and quasicrystals respectively) have been questioned.

But the science awards are different because the winners’ contributions to the world are . . . not exactly tangible, but measurable.  Although there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding recipients, it is hard to argue that those recipients have not benefited humanity in some way.  One can point to actual results and progress.  Objectively.

The Literature and Peace Prizes on the other hand are entirely subjective.  Both awards are infamous for who did not win even more than who did.  Giants of 20th century literature (Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov) and arguably the greatest novelist of all time (Tolstoy) were snubbed by Nobel.  And then there is the case of Gandhi.  Even Nobel admits that it grievously erred by never awarding Gandhi a Peace Prize.  (The year Gandhi died, the Peace Prize was not awarded; a tacit admission that Nobel screwed up majorly.  Nobel’s website is apologetic and somewhat defensive about its greatest oversight.)

Both the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize are inherently political.  Obviously the Peace Prize is overtly so, but what makes the Literature Prize both aggravating and disingenuous is the pretension that the prize is solely a reward for quality.  Glance at the list of winners and ask yourself if you’ve even heard of most of them.  For every literary giant–a William Faulker, for example–there are at least two Dario Fo’s.  This year’s winner is Tomas Tranströmer.  I have not read his work, nor am I, by any stretch of the imagination, a poetry expert, so I cannot judge his literary merit.  It excited his native Sweden.

No American has won since 1992 (Toni Morrison), and that has caused a tempest in a teapot. Giving out literary prizes is ridiculous (time rather than a committee determines greatness), but I do understand the anger a few years ago that ensued following the comments of one Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, who said that American writers are too insular and ignorant to win.  Engdahl went on to say that Europe is the center of the literary world.  These sentiments were echoed again this month by Alexander Nazaryan in Salon, although his observations are deeply flawed and easy to pick apart–i.e. par for the Salon course.  Arguments about the death of American literature never die.  Perhaps the problem is that American literature has become so removed from the general public that only a select few care enough to take part in the debate.  On one hand this would prove Engdahl’s point.  On the other, it underscores the fundamental flaw in his argument–the Committee does not look deep enough.  No one ever bothers to look past “serious” fiction to the unfairly derided “genre” fiction, yet in such works one can find far superior outlets for exploring the overarching universal themes which Nobel claims to love.

It is true that academia and the Masters of Fine Arts have gentrified the oh-so-serious American novel to a certain degree, but it is nothing short of galling to hear cries of insularity coming from the Nobel Committee.  Claiming Europe is the center of the literary world is merely a justification for the fact that Nobel largely ignores everywhere that is not Europe.  More accurately, Nobel ignores literature published in non-Western European languages.  Take a look at the list of winners.  Most wrote or write in English, French, German, Spanish, or the Scandinavian languages, and even those that don’t often have very strong ties to Western Europe.  Yet world literature is more than just Germanic and Romantic, and that is why the criticism is especially grating.  Nazaryan can claim that Nobel has “given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists,” but this is a disingenuous statement.  Rather Nobel has awarded the prize to a Caribbean poet (Derek Walcott in 1992) and a Chinese absurdist (Gao Xingjian in 2000, who has lived in France since 1987 and been a French citizen since 1997), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Were it were not for the large purse attached, and the association with the Peace Prize, no one would take the Literature Prize seriously.  Even the judges themselves cannot agree what constitutes worth (see here and here).  Moreover, the Literature Committee is not above emulating their counterparts in Oslo by trying to send a political message.  When V.S. Naipaul won in 2001, it was just after the September 11 attacks.  It was no coincidence that the prize went to a prominent critic of Islam and fundamentalism.  When Harold Pinter won, it was less for his plays and more for his strident criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American government.  It was the same with Doris Lessing a couple of years later.  These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  Even if the political undertones do not detract from the winner’s worth, they nevertheless undermine the Literature Prize’s selection.   Furthermore, those undertones are monolithic in their outlook; they always mirror the ideals and beliefs of the European political left.  Who exactly is insular again?

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Far more than the Literature Prize though, the Peace Prize is the Nobel Committee at its most didactic and political.  For all the money, fame, and prestige attached, the Peace Prize is really a giant farce.  One must remember that a handful of Norwegians choose the Peace Prize recipient (and those Norwegians are chosen by the government of Norway.)  Hence Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, and Kofi Annan won the award while Gandhi did not.  If the Literature Prize subtly mirrors the European left, than the Peace Prize boldly announces that to the world.  Never was this more apparent than in the 2000′s where the majority of the awards were ultimately criticisms of the administration of George W. Bush.  Six times between 2000 and 2010 the Peace Prize was awarded to critics of the Bush administration, either because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or because of his horrific anti-environment policies.  Barack Obama’s win can only be seen as the final rebuke to the Bush administration.

This year, clearly sensitive to the charge that Nobel does not consider enough women, the Committee split the Peace Prize between three women, Tawakel Karman of Yemen and Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.  (The lack of female recipients is a very real concern.  Only 15 women have won the Peace Prize, and that is more than any other Nobel Prize.)  Karman was chosen because Nobel wanted to publicly approve the Arab Spring, and Karman is the only prominent woman in the movement.  Whether or not she is worthy (or whether her efforts are successful) is a different story.

Honestly, any award for the Arab Spring is very premature at this date.  The Arab Spring is a rousing story–the people toppling powerful dictators–but it remains to be seen  whether those revolutions will be successful, including in Karman’s Yemen.  Even in Egypt and Libya, where the dictator was toppled, it is yet unclear that whatever comes next will be better.  After Louis XVI came Robespierre and Napoleon; after the Tsar came Lenin and Stalin; after the Shah came the Ayatollahs.  Waiting to judge whether the Arab Spring actually succeeded would have been more prudent, but then the Peace Prize Committee couldn’t have given its imprimatur so quickly.  Should these revolutions go the way that most revolutions do, it will be very hard to justify that the Peace Prize was given to those who (as Alfred Nobel required in his will) “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

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I can neither defend nor attack the Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Leymah Gbowee.  I had never heard of before, and I am unfamiliar with her work.  I suspect though that her selection has less to do with her own accomplishments and more to do with her co-winnner, countrywoman, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I have written about Johnson Sirleaf before.  Like many in the Western world, I am fascinated by her.  Nevertheless, I have the luxury of not being Liberian, and her government does affect my life.  Undoubtedly, she has done much for Liberia; most notably she managed to get billions of dollars of her nation’s debt forgiven.  Furthermore, in a country with such a troubled history as Liberia, under her rule, free, fair, and peaceful elections were just held, and her position is at stake.  (At the time of this writing, the opposition claims election fraud by Johnson Sirleaf’s party, although official African Union observers have reported the elections to be fair.  What happens next remains to be seen, and I fear it will be ugly.)  Nevertheless, life for the average Liberian is incredibly difficult and charges of corruption have plagued Johnson Sirleaf’s government but not her personally.  What has plagued her is her former association with her predecessor, the genocidal dictator Charles Taylor.  A commission in her own country recommended that for that association she should be barred from holding public office for 30 years (she is 72.)  Obviously this recommendation was ignored.

The Peace Prize was given out just a few days before Liberians went to the polls to determine whether Johnson Sirleaf should have a second term.  For this reason, the timing of the award was awful from all angles.  Just as there is no other way to justify Obama’s award than as a rebuke to Bush, one cannot see Johnson Sirleaf’s award as anything other than a way for the Nobel Committee (i.e. white, rich Europeans) to suggest to Liberians (i.e. poor, black Africans) how they should vote in their own elections.  Yet, this belies a fundamental lack of understanding.  Johnson Sirleaf’s approval in Liberia is far more complex (and far less universal) than in the West.  As with Karman, it would seem far more appropriate for the Nobel Committee to have waited to assess what Johnson Sirleaf has actually done.  Did she leave Liberia a better place than she found it?  If the answer is yes, then she would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, but that is a question only time could tell.

But patience and careful consideration?  These are not Nobel virtues.

Bat and Ball Games

For the past two days, I have been listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the England/India cricket matches in England.  I have no idea what is going on, although I gather that England is winning.  There is something very soothing about this commentary; it is not excitable like some football commentary (no GOOOOOL! calls.)  It is definitely not for the beginner, yet I could listen to it all day; it is so soothing.

I have written about my fascination for cricket, and I continue to be fascinated by cricket because it is so inscrutable, aided by a lingo that verges on the ridiculous to the outsider.  Cricket is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, which is why the prominent nations are England and former British colonies (including Australia, New Zealand, a conglomerate of Caribbean countries, nations of the South Asian subcontinent, and former British holdings in Africa.)  Unlike football, which spread beyond the official and unofficial British Empire and continues to grow, cricket seems content to be beloved by the few (granted “few” is well over a billion and a half.)  Cricket deliberately limits outsiders, which smacks of elitism and Empire.  Is there any question why cricket has not spread?

Learning another sport is like learning a language.  You have to get the vocabulary, but you also have to learn the grammar, the nuances, and at least be able to distinguish regional dialects.  For an American (me), football is like Spanish.  It’s something I’ve been aware of since I was a child and learned the odd word.  Like Spanish, football is generally easy to learn.  Baseball in contrast, the prototypical “American” sport, is like English.  Whether you like or dislike baseball, if you are American, you are surrounded by it from birth.  Baseball is part of American national heritage, and its slang has infiltrated American English.  I am no fan of baseball (I always raise an eyebrow when a baseball fan complains that football is boring), yet I can follow a baseball game, which I often have to do when I visit my family.  In contrast, cricket (for an American) is like Latin or ancient Greek, or perhaps Sanskrit.  Every once in a blue moon, you come across a cricket term in American English, but those terms are few, far between, and their origin has been completely obscured.

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Baseball and cricket are very similar, almost cousins.  Both have their origins in English bat and ball folk games, much like football, both rugby codes, Australian Rules Football, Gaelic football, and American football and its derivatives all descend from their own ur-sport.  The similarities between baseball and cricket go well beyond origin though.  Both are slavishly obsessed with statistics and quantification.  Both have a mythic development site; cricket has the Marylebone Cricket Club which established the rules of the game, and baseball has Cooperstown, New York, where according to discredited legend, Abner Doubleday invented the game in a cow pasture (regardless of the veracity of the Doubleday legend, baseball firmly affixed its imprimatur on the story by housing its Hall of Fame in the town.)

Another similarity between baseball and cricket is literature.  Yesterday while I was listening to the BBC’s cricket coverage, one of the commentators mentioned that cricket is a game that spawned wide body of literature, while football has not.  At least in English–I cannot speak to other languages–there is some truth to this; cricket lends itself to literature (of variable quality) whereas football literature is not quite of the same breadth.  Some of England’s greatest writers have written about cricket.  Baseball, like cricket, lends itself to a literary culture although for different reasons.  There is some remarkably literary fiction and non-fiction written about baseball or using baseball as a theme, metaphor, or launching pad for a larger idea.  One of the great essays that I have read is Gay Talese’s famous Esquire piece about Joe DiMaggio “The Silent Season of a Hero.” (Talese also wrote an essay about women’s football, specifically about Liu Ying, the Chinese player whose penalty kick was saved in the 1999 World Cup final.)

Despite what BBC cricket commentator believe, it is not true that football lacks a body of literature, but one cannot deny that a football’s literary culture is not of the same caliber as either cricket or baseball–at least in English; I cannot speak to other languages.  Much of the great football literature is either memoir, history, journalistic, or originated in fan culture or on the Internet.  There are some famous standouts, Eduardo Galeano’s romantic history Football in Sun and Shadow (in Spanish), and Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch are two of the most famous.  (In fiction, football is woefully lacking.  I have not read The Damned United, which seems to be the only work of football fiction in English, but I did see the movie.)  Football literature probably does not have the same influence and import that cricket and baseball-related literature do.

(This paragraph is all theory, I have no research to back it up, so please feel free to agree, disagree, and present alternative theories.)  If I had to wager a guess, the reason for baseball’s popularity among the literati is because, unlike in Britain, there is not a strong social class distinction in American society.  I would also guess that the reason there is more literature about cricket than football is because the elite of British society, which preferred cricket, tended to be the educated class, and Britain’s literary output came from that educated class.  Football, being the game of the masses, was until recent times left out in the cold.  In contrast,  baseball was enjoyed across the American social and geographic spectra while sport associated with either the British Empire and/or the elite fell into a niche or petered out (today’s American national cricket team has but one actual American player.)  Because baseball was seen as so quintessentially American, immigrants and their children became fanatically devoted to the sport.  Some of those children became writers (Bernard Malamud, Talese, etc.) and baseball inspired them in some way.

Because literary culture is not what it used to be,* there may never be the great literary football fiction.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing; football has gotten along fine without it, and the history and development of the game is just as fascinating.  The sport which boasts the finest literary (and cinematic and artistic) body or work is boxing, which proves that just because the artistic output is great it does not mean the sport is.

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This weekend I briefly watched the World Cup of Softball on ESPN.  If you are like me, you didn’t know there was a World Cup of Softball.  There is also apparently a Softball World Championship.  Apparently these are run by different organizations.  I must admit I am not all that interested in the intricacies of world softball governance.

Softball is an odd sport.  Taken at face value, softball is like baseball for people who aren’t good enough to play baseball, and do not have the necessary training.  It also requires much less space.  This explains why softball is a more popular sport to play.  From 1996-2008 softball was an Olympic sport, but then I never realized it existed.  In that time, softball was dominated by the US team, which is one of the reasons it is no longer an Olympic sport.  Today, only a handful of nations play softball seriously (it’s The Onion, you can laugh.)  Ironically (bitterly so), at the last softball match in the Olympics, the US lost its title to Japan.

Even though I don’t particularly enjoy baseball, I do understand it, which is why I can say that watching even a little bit of the World Cup of Softball was like watching a train wreck; it was excruciating to see but impossible to turn away from.

Although both men and women play softball across the country, the sport is inextricable from gender politics.  Baseball is for men and softball is for women.  When the Olympics eliminated softball, baseball too was eliminated.  There was not a big push to keep baseball, but softball became something of a cause célèbre.  Baseball does not need the Olympics to sustain itself and increase its audience (or marketing potential), but softball has no other major venue despite having two world championships.  Thanks to the Olympics, softball was in the vision (peripheral perhaps but vision nonetheless) of the American public.  Softball even produced a legitimate media star in Jennie Finch, although she was noted as much for her beauty as for her copious athletic ability.**

I want to support softball, at least in theory.  Under this theory I support women’s basketball and I know the names of some players even though I find basketball to be almost as painful to watch as baseball.  The difference though is that unlike women’s football and women’s basketball, softball is not women’s baseball, it’s a watered-down version of a sport that women once played, and still do.  Softball was basically forced onto women because baseball was a closed shop.  Title IX, which usually made things better for women, only added to the problem.  Baseball and softball were deemed to be equivalent, and if the school offered softball, it could keep women out of baseball (women’s baseball has a long and tortured history.)  As a result, generations of women were forced into an ersatz baseball.

I don’t want to come down too hard on softball, because I don’t want to belittle the players.  They are great athletes who train very hard.  Furthermore, the national softball league (National Pro Fastpitch) is not exactly setting the nation aflame.  There are fewer teams there than in the WPS.  On the other hand, according to NPR, women who play for the National Baseball Team get even less respect.  Did you know there was a World Cup for Women’s Baseball or before that a Women’s World Series (both of which having teams from countries other than just the US and Canada)?  Me neither.

I have not seen a women’s baseball match, so I cannot speak to the skill level involved.  I am not sure what kind of market, if any, there is for women’s baseball or softball, but I imagine that the divide hurts both, particularly women’s baseball.  Women’s baseball is decades behind in growth and I imagine that, like me, most people do not realize it exists.  In the NPR article that I linked to, I found this very poignant quote:

“Despite what they achieved, they never got the recognition they deserved,” says Nicholas A. Lopardo, general manager of the 2004 USA Baseball Women’s National Team. “We’re still scratching our heads to figure out why.”

This phenomenon is not unique to women’s baseball.  Just ask any member of the 1991 USWNT who won the first football World Cup in China.  The good news is that it can get better if the stars align.  Perhaps it is time to stop pretending that softball is a legitimate alternative and that women can and should play baseball.  Just like the men.

Footnotes:

* I cannot say for sure why literary culture has basically vanished from the US, but I suspect there is blame on all sides.  We have a television-driven media that shuns any indication that the lowest common denominator is neither low nor common.  In other words, the media believes that we are all imbeciles and treats as us such.  There are exceptions, but the exceptions are few and far between.  The literati are also to blame for this.  Tolstoy and Dickens serialized their novels in literary and popular magazines.  Today, the universities have monopolized and gentrified high culture.  To be a “great” writer (as opposed to a popular one), one needs to (1)  get an MFA from a prestigious program; (2) craft sentences like Nabokov or Joyce only more incomprehensible; (3) ensure that only a select few (mainly university professors) will read, care about, and understand your fiction; (4) write about topics that the plebs (the general reading populace) cannot relate to; (5) focus heavily on the inner lives of “flawed” (i.e. shallow) central characters; (6) win prestigious awards that a publisher can put on a dust jacket; and (7) shun and belittle all attempts to attract a larger public.  Also, you need to degrade both anything the larger reading public likes and that public itself for liking it.

** Finch also had the advantage of being a beautiful heterosexual player in a sport that, unfairly, has been stereotyped as a lesbian sport in the same way that men’s figure skating has been unfairly stereotyped as a gay men’s sport.  While both softball and figure skating are perhaps more welcoming to gay and lesbian competitors and fans, it does a great disservice to both those sports and their competitors.  It also harms their numbers.  Coincidentally, neither women’s football nor women’s basketball are perceived as lesbian sports in the United States, and are therefore okay.  Nigeria is a different situation.

Ranking Composers

Anthony Tomassini of The New York Times, a critic whom I usually respect, has undertaken a project that  I despise.  He has started ranking composers of classical music.  (As an aside, is there a better term than “classical”, which is a very specific and narrowly tailored term.)  To his credit, Tomassini acknowledges the flaws of making this kind of list, and he limits his scope to a very famous but narrow tradition.  Nevertheless, this is list is folly.

Music is inherently subjective, and while there are certainly better composers than others, once a composer attains a certain level, comparison is only a matter of taste.  Can we fairly compare a Baroque era composer, who composed in a deliberately ornate style, with a Classical composer, who strove for simplicity of line and aural beauty?  Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg revolutionized music, but are they “better” than Mozart or Bach who may not have been revolutionaries, but who are widely regarded as among the greatest of all time.  Tomassini adds in his own biases when he discusses Handel’s place in the pantheon when he makes an off-handed remark about de capo arias.  My own feelings are that Richard Wagner’s music should be permanent banned from existence, not (just) because of the composer’s horrible anti-Semitism, but because it is entirely too tedious and turgid.  Nevertheless, neither my feelings nor Tomassini’s will matter.

Tomassini would probably say I am misreading his intention, especially since he steadfastly refused to rank his top ten list (and then went on to heavy-handedly imply that Bach was the greatest of all time.)  Nevertheless, I do not think I am misreading him.  The composers that he will be ranking have already been judged twice–first by their peers and successors and then by posterity–and thus became a part of the permanent repertoire.  Ultimately, this is an exercise in vanity: “My tastes are dispositive.”

I get fed up by subjective gimmicks like this.  For years now, this list has been the bane of my existence.  When it first came out, I felt very intimidated because I had read less than half of the books on the list.  I have now read over half of them, but my own feelings of inadequacy had blinded me to that list’s flaws, such as: (1) they’re not all books, which is a far more serious flaw than seems at first (plays should be watched, poetry-especially epic poetry-can be heard or recited, and a short story collection is just plain cheating); and (2) the writers who created the list had a lot of self-interest at stake (which is why you see books by Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Astrid Lindgren on the list, and also why the focus extends well beyond the Dead White European Male club.)

The truth is–and here is where the subjectivity argument comes into play–a lot of these books are really, really boring.  At least they are for me.  You cannot make me read any more Faulkner, Melville is a terrible prose stylist, and Dickens never says in 10 words what he can say in 200.  And don’t get me started about Toni Morrison.

Tomassini would say that this is all in fun and not meant to be taken seriously.  That is his right, but I would answer that it disrespects composers by giving the veneer of objectivity to the subjective, and creates insidious classifications of good and bad.

 

Harry Potter

Yesterday I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I for the first time.  I plan to see it again.  It was good.  I was also a little sad about seeing this movie.  For a little over a decade, Harry Potter has been a part of my life.  When Part II is released, it will be the end of the journey.

I got into Harry Potter as a sort of protest.  It was my senior year of college.  The first three books had already been published, and the fourth was almost ready to be released.  The evangelical Christian fringe decided that Harry Potter promoted witchcraft and began a campaign full of ignorance and deceit to get the books out of the classroom.  The real reason for the hatred was because the books were popular and protesting brought those people attention.  I had already decided to read the books because I didn’t want to be completely excluded from a clear cultural phenomenon.  However, I wanted to wait until all seven books came out first.

The Christian right made me realize that I could not afford to wait, and I found an opportunity to start reading.  I was friendly with a graduate student at the time, and I babysat her two children from when she needed help.  Both children read the books, but the younger one wanted me to read it to him. (I recently discovered his profile on a certain social networking site, and it depresses me how much older he is.  He was such a cute kid.  I’m depressed.)  As I read the first book to him, I became hooked.  I borrowed the first two books (they did not have the third) and read them in a couple hours.  I then went out and bought the first three books for myself and read them over and over.

Every time a new book was released, I barely slept the night before.  When the book arrived, I would lock myself into an empty room and read.  No matter how long the new book was, I finished it within 24 hours of its arrival.  Then I would reread the entire series up to that point.  What struck me as I got into the later books was how much more mature the tone got.  The character grew, and so did the author.

The movies have almost always been disappointments.  Unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, the Harry Potter movies do not stand up to repeat viewings, even the best ones.  (Also unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, the Harry Potter movies are not as good as the source material.  Part of the fun in Harry Potter is the clever writing.  Tolkien’s writing is something of a drag even though the story has no peer.)  None of the Harry Potter scripts have done a good enough job of translating the novels.  To truly understand the movies, one has to have read the books. Otherwise the movies make no sense.

Nevertheless, I saw each one in the theater dutifully, always within a week of the opening.  The only films I have seen in the theater over the past few years are from the Harry Potter series (I have lost faith in the movies, but that is for another post.)  Often I have seen them twice in the theater.  I even saw the last movie twice, and I thought it was terrible

I love Harry Potter, but he is coming to the end of his journey.  Christopher Robin went to school, Wendy Moira Angela Darling got married and had children of her own, Jackie Paper came no more to Honalee, and the children that I once adored are growing up into adulthood.  Now Harry must wait for the next generation to find him.

And I have to grow a little older again.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Stevie Nicks “Rooms on Fire”; Five for Fighting “The Riddle”; The Seekers “Georgy Girl”; Elton John “The Bitch is Back”; The Beatles “Girl”; Arabesque “Midnight Dancer”;  Patricia Klaas “Faites Entrer Les Clowns”; Henryk Górecki “Symphony #3, Op. 36, ‘Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs’” Lento E Largo, Tranquillissimo; John Denver “Dreamland Express”;