No wonder Odysseus had so much trouble finding his way home. It turns out that there is some dispute as to the actual historical location of Ithaca, where Penelope waited for her hero husband to return. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, in The Odyssey, “Homer’s Ithaca ‘lies low,’ but its modern namesake is hilly. And though Odysseus’s island is ‘farthest to sea towards dusk,’ today’s Ithaca is close to the mainland in the east.” This disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed by historians and geographers over the years, but now, for the first time, investigations may provide clues as to the true location of Homer’s Ithaca, as geologists using a subterranean scan determine if Kefalonia, to the west of present-day Ithaca, was once actually two islands, the westernmost of which would fit Homer’s description. Locals are taking sides as Odysseus’ home brings with it a lucrative tourist trade.
The recent debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik has come and gone, and by all accounts, it was an engaging afternoon. In attendance were such Canadian luminaries as Douglas Coupland, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, her husband – the writer John Ralston Saul, and my friend Morry.Held at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, the two New Yorker staff writers (and expat Canadians) wittily deconstructed “Canada”, reducing it to its fundamentals as they debated the question: Canada: Nation or Notion?CBC Radio recorded the hour-long debate for its Ideas program. Listen here (mp3).Macleans magazine, which organized the event, also has video footage of the debate.
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
I’ve had gift cards for some chain stores lying around for months now – gifts from Christmas and my birthday – and yesterday I decided to use them. It was strange though, despite having quite a bit of free money at my disposal, I found it very difficult to buy myself books. Over the last several years I’ve grown so accustomed to buying books very cheaply that I couldn’t rationalize paying full price, even with the gift card. I felt pretty bad about it, too. I know that authors get their paychecks when we buy their books new, but they don’t see any of my money if I buy a book at a used bookstore or a yardsale. I also feel bad because most independent bookstores can’t afford to mark their books down, and even the chain stores only put a handful of titles on sale, but I know that Amazon will have the book I want at 30 percent off, or more. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to get mad at the publishers. Why does a book have to be a luxury good? I won’t pretend to know the economics of bookselling, though I know that it requires many people – all of whom need to be compensated – to put out a book, but does it really make sense to charge 25 bucks or more for a new book? There are probably a lot of people who occupy a grey area as book customers. They enjoy reading but not enough to spend 25 bucks on it or even the 15 they now want for a paperback. Instead they buy a magazine or see a movie or go out to lunch, all equally entertaining in their minds. I don’t know where the money gets squeezed out of the book creation and selling process, but if books get cheaper people will read more and I won’t stand with my nose pressed up to the window of the bookstore staring at new releases that are beyond my means.Nonetheless with all this cash in hand, I had to buy something, so instead of spending it all on handful of paperbacks or a smaller handful of hardcovers, I decided to buy a truly expensive book, this time for Mrs. Millions who deserves such things. I bought Modern House Three, a Phaidon architecture book of considerable heft filled with glossy pictures of space age homes (she’s an architect). I got a couple of books for myself, too, a couple of novels I’ve been curious about for a long time: Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. I actually still have some more left on these cards, so maybe I’ll take another stab at the whole chain bookstore thing soon.
The contributor’s notes accompanying Michael Lewis’ various pieces over the last year or so have hinted at a new book in the works for Lewis that promises to take on the economic crisis and offer a sequel of sorts to Liar’s Poker, the book that he thought would take down Wall Street. Now we know the title, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and have a release date, November 2. (via Kottke)There’s already a book out about the crisis that Lewis edited called Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, which has garnered mixed reviews from critics looking for a more substantial take on our economic woes.Elsewhere, Lewis takes a contrarian view of Warren Buffett, everyone’s favorite billionaire, in his review of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. (via The Daily Dish)
Every few months, a peculiar compulsion comes over me. After dinner, instead of reading a book or lazing on the stoop, I’ll walk upstairs, sit down, and fit small blocks together, again and again and again. When I’m in the grips of this dependence, my wife knows exactly where I’ll be from 7:30 to 8:15 or so: in front of the TV, eyes glazed, drool at my mouth. Tetris fever has struck.
Over the years, we’ve amassed a solid collection of Nintendo games, including Tecmo Super Bowl, Mega Man 2, and all three Super Marios. There is Baseball, Baseball Stars, and Bases Loaded 2. But when I’m feeling eight-bit, I almost always go with Tetris; with few exceptions, it stays in the console, safe as a joey. Like Pac-Man or Punch-Out!!, its pacing and graphics are as effective today as they were in the Reagan years, as good as they need to be. When I pop in, say, Tennis or Ice Hockey, I’m depressingly aware of the gap between them and their modern successors—grunting apes to today’s Gattaca humanoids. But Tetris is different. As with chess, efforts to update it have seemed superfluous, faintly sacrilegious. It’s one of the few entertainments that arrived fully formed, little improvement necessary.
For me, this is evidenced by the ease and consistency with which it melts my brain. Once things get cooking, twenty or thirty rows in, I find myself on the fourteenth level—or is it fifteenth?—of consciousness. It’s a murky shade of purple there, with a tinge of lunar dust. Drifting through the door from The Twilight Zone intro, I find “Bitches Brew” the national anthem, Jim Woodring the national storyteller. In this place, everything undulates—yet stays, like, perfectly still, man. Outside of recreational drugs and a Ghibli film, few other things bring on such a strange and fluid state. And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done.
Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall.
This approach correlates with who I am when the Nintendo is off: I’ve taught myself to stop drinking, but I reward my piousness by getting whacked on special occasions. I withhold myself from others until I’m comfortable, then gleefully let it rip. Most importantly, as a freelancer, my life has become a constant wait for the “I” block. That wait is often unbearable, but when it finally comes—via an editor’s e-mail or telephone call—there’s a flash of light and a scream of sound. I feel great for a time, smug with accomplishment. And then, inevitably, other bricks appear and I must hurry to place them, setting things up for the next big clear.
My wife doesn’t live her life this way, and, tellingly, she doesn’t play Tetris in the same way I do. She takes each block at a time, concentrating on the present, never stalling for the tetris. Watching her careful style drives me nuts, but I understand it: she’s a pragmatist, preferring steadiness to risk, no matter how visceral the reward. Unlike me, she doesn’t need constant validation to get by, can cope with a regular job. Her way appeals to me—it’s calmer, less given to peaks and valleys. But I don’t think I’m capable of arranging my blocks any other way.
It might seem absurd for an old Nintendo game to bring on such navel-gazing, but, hey, there it is. And that’s why Tetris, unlike others in its genre—Klax or Arkanoid or Dr. Mario—is consistently at or near the top of greatest-game lists. Because while its premise seems dull, its simple complexity allows us to project ourselves fully upon it. In a 2007 interview with Gamespot, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov said, “Emotion comes from [the player,] and [the designer] can’t control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom.” That’s what Tetris brings: interior freedom through steadily-vanishing rows, a vehicle for thoughts that might not otherwise surface. We supply the drama. Pretty good for a game that was made in the age of Excitebike.
[Image credit: Aldo Gonzalez]
Brandon, who runs the blog antimodal, has created a little application that “handicaps” the great 20th century novels. It allows you to assign scores for different features, like “stream of consciousness,” and themes, like the “Black experience.” The scores enable you to promote or penalize a book based on these different characteristics. Note that you can add additional categories to the ones already listed by pressing the “Add New Category” button at the top of the page. In Brandon’s words, “The book list is still a work in progress. I am not familiar with many of the books there, so if you have information that would help classify a book, let me know.” Check it out.
The folks at Google have set up a blog dedicated to Google Book Search. Google’s plan to digitize the world’s books has been one of the most interesting and controversial publishing industry stories of the last couple of years. Is anyone surprised that it’s Google using a blog to get its side of the story out and not the publishers? Me neither.