Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Who Wants to Read Apollonius of Perga?

For my second post of the year, I’m already going to some extracurricular reading. Among other treasures, I received for this last Christmas a copy of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam, who, the cover tells me, is also the author of Gracefully Insane. Now I received on another Christmas around 1994, the best present my mom ever got me: the Britannica Great Books, the books that gave me the liberal education I had longed for over decades, the books that got me hooked on ten-year reading plans, the books that inspired this blog. One of the downsides of having a ten-year reading plan is that when someone gives you a book, it’s not always easy to find a place for it in your schedule. But when I get a history of the Britannica Great Books, I’m going to read it and I’m going to blog about it.

Alas, Beam takes a dim view of the enterprise. Not that his skewering send-up of my beloved Great Books isn’t fascinating and hilarious. Mortimer Adler was indeed a ludicrous personage, and Beam makes me laugh as he shows Adler pushing himself into situations he’s not qualified for, trying to show off at parties, or claiming that syntopicon will become a household word. And, yes, Adler comes across as a wannabe scholar when he has to admit he knows only one language. But Beam’s bottom-line critique asks whatever made Mortimer Adler think that any twentieth-century American would want to read the Conics of Apollonius of Perga. And yet, thousands of people did. They read it in English, in an old-fashioned translation (copyright free) from the previous century. They read it in 8-point type. They went to the University of Chicago to read it, and they formed clubs all over the country to read it. And they came back for more.

Also providing much comic relief in the story is Kenneth Harden, who developed techniques of selling the sets door-to-door. And it worked! Intellectually insecure suburbanites bought them up by the – ok, by the tens. But somebody had to pay for the production of these books. So what if Mrs. Midwest spent a few hundred dollars on books that got no interaction from her other than dusting? As the funny papers’ Blondie once said, “If I’m not going to read, I might as well not read something educational.” Who are we to say that that American Dreamer didn’t get enjoyment out of just having the books in the living room for guests to see?

At some point, one of those sets made it to Adrian’s Used Book Store in Oklahoma City, and then made it to me. Nothing about the set I bought suggested that any one volume had ever been opened. There were no markings in any of the books. The cracks in the cheap binding might have come from nothing other than decades of changing weather. But I have read many words in every volume and every word in about half the volumes. A couple of them I’ve read twice (Shakespeare and Boswell). Many of the volumes have book-repair tape holding the fragile covers together. And they're marked up plenty now! At some point I had to start using a magnifying glass to read the small type, but that’s no trouble for me. So why is Beam so dead set against a project that doesn’t excite millions of people at a time? Who wants to read Apollonius? I do.

And, yes, I read it in English. I’ve learned all that I’ve learned from the ancients and from the French and the Russians through translation. Beam tells of several experts arguing with Adler that Greek philosophy can only be understood in Greek, and he makes fun of Adler’s habitual retort as defensive and inadequate. But I think Adler makes a good point by asking his critics, “Oh? So you read the Old Testament in Hebrew?” Does Beam or anyone else seriously think the world would be a better place without these translated words?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Poetry of Broken Sentences

OK, I’ve seen some movies written by David Mamet, but I had never read one of his plays. Were the films I saw full of the interruptions, fragments, and grammatical solecisms of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow? There may not have been a single complete sentence in either play.

The characters in these dramas are as shattered as their grammar; they certainly talk in the manner of people who want to make sense of life and pronounce principles without having been disciplined to read, think, and listen coherently. But does this diminished argot really make for better art than iambic pentameter does? I didn’t like Glengarry Glen Ross. I felt sorry for the dejected realtors trying to separate fools from their money by joining them to specious plots in Florida. But Death of a Salesman it was not, and so the steady flow of linguistic shards got tedious.

By the end of Speed-the-Plow, on the other hand, I found the bumpy cadence of the lines contributing integrally to a moving, pathetic portrait. Here, it’s movie producers, working in a medium that conveys meaning but constrained to create a work that a mass public will pay to see. Two of the three characters find themselves confronted with the opportunity to make a movie with a message that has a hope of changing viewers for the better, but they each alloy their altruism in various ways enough to disillusion each other, and crass commercialism wins out in the end. And yet at least now they know that commercialism is crass and that there’s a contest. In my mind, the realization moves them from being two-dimensional machines into being fully rounded tragic figures.

 In the same week, I read Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough from 1798, having planned it thinking it had some connection with Mamet’s play. Apparently it has none except mutual inspiration from an old saying about God’s eagerness to bless industry. In Morton’s play, everyone works hard to keep secrets, marry the right person, and end up with some money: all the requirements of a good farce. And for good measure, there’s a literal plowing race.

 I much preferred this classical comedy to Mamet’s biting cynicism. Maybe I just don’t want my art imitating life too closely right now. A death and a will have a way of bringing out the worst in people, and I need some happy endings.

A happy post-script: I just found out that today, the first Monday after Twelfth Day of Christmas, is traditionally known as Plough Monday. Well, let’s all get to work!