Return from the abyss playlist

  • Kids in America – Kim Wilde
  • Tall Cans in the Air – Transplants
  • Supernova – Liz Phair
  • Hollaback Girl – Gwen Stefani
  • Volcano Girls – Veruca Salt
  • Animal – Pearl Jam
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
  • Head Like a Hole – Nine Inch Nails
  • Terrible Lie – Nine Inch Nails
  • It’s a Long Way to the Top – AC/DC
  • Perfect Strangers – Deep Purple


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Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As soon as I finished reading this, I gave it 4 stars. Having let it sit in my mind for a bit and now as I sit down to write this review, I’m going to change it to 5. The poetry itself (in four cantos) is very good and I’d rate Byron’s work a solid 4. However the notes in the edition I read were spectacular and pushed my rating up. The almost 100 pages of notes include history, social issues, and contemporary commentary. They are written in English, Latin, classical Greek and Italian, and cite present and classical authors in their native tongues. So very cool and even further accelerate my desire to learn Latin.

Byron wrote the first two cantos and published them. These are interesting and good, but I think he’s still feeling out where he’s going with it. By the third canto, I began to see the Byron of later works turn from seedling to blossom. He’s mastering speed, pacing and content and you can almost see him reflecting and growing as a poet. By the fourth canto, he is in his own, filling my heart and mind with each stanza.

Like in his Curse of Minerva, published the same year as the first two cantos of Childe Harold, Byron calls out those who have looted and stolen Greek treasures (such as the Elgin Marbles):

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr’d!
Canto II: XV

As I’m starting to look into Horace’s works, it was fun to run across this oft cited stanza:

Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,
Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse
To understand, not feel thy lyric flow,
To comprehend, but never love thy verse,
Although no deeper Moralist rehearse
Our little life, nor Bard prescribe his art,
Nor livelier Satirist the conscience pierce,
Awakening without wounding the touch’d heart,
Yet fare thee well–upon Soracte’s ridge we part.

One thought I had continually as I read through Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was that Byron’s poetry (and most poetry) should be read aloud. The cadences that develop as you speak it add another depth to the work. It’s almost like listening to classical music. You can hear it on one level and appreciate it, but sometimes, there’s something else just underneath perception that swells or crushes your heart. I get this with Mozart and I get it with many selections from Byron (e.g. this poem, Mazeppa, and parts of Manfred). Byron was a fan of Coleridge’s Christabel and Kubla Khan, and I can see why as those poems also carry beautiful imagery and pacing within them.

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The Love of Books: The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A real fun read of a small edition of this classic book on the love of books. Penned in the 14th century by Richard de Bury, the Bishop of Durham, it talks about the joy and need of books, thoughts on maintaining an scholarly library and the proper handling of books. The author is so excited and it comes out in his writing. He beat Thomas Frognall Dibdin to the punch by almost five centuries. Right off the bat, he writes “In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace” (p. 9). Could it be put any more succinctly?

He also discusses those who don’t see learning or books in the same light that he does. It’s amazing that seven centuries later his thoughts on human action are spot on. He cites Ovid in complaining that many people of the day are turning to making money instead of studying and making new science and philosophy (p. 67). Later, he writes “Although it is true that all men naturally desire knowledge, yet they do not all take the same pleasure in learning. On the contrary, when they have experienced the labour of study and find their sense wearied, most men inconsiderately fling away the nut, before they have broken the shell and reached the kernel” (p. 83-84).

In chapter XVII, he puts forth a wondrous, joyful set of rules for handling books. It’s still excellent advice: “that they [books] may rejoice in purity while we have them in our hands, and rest securely when they are put back in their repositories” (p. 104). In Chapter XIX, he lays out a set of rules for how to lend books out of the Oxford library, such as making a record of the item borrowed, only lending a copy outside the library if there is another copy, and regularly cataloging and reviewing its holdings.

Well worth the time to read through this short work.

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The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Walter Scott

It was so refreshing to return to early 19th c. poetry. I truly enjoyed Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel. It was an interesting story of romance, border clashes and even a little sorcery. In Canto II, we hear of two stealing into a crypt at night to pry a book of magic from a dead man’s grip. The rhythm of this poem is very fast. I felt pulled through the whole work instead of only reading my way.

But, my initial draw to this work, and one that still remains strongly within me, was in the first stanza of the 6th canto (p.176):

High though his titles, proud his name
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concerted all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

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The Printed Homer by Philip H. Young

The Printed Homer: A 3,000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the OdysseyThe Printed Homer: A 3,000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Philip H. Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Printed Homer was spectacular on almost all counts, with only one problem that I’ll mention at the end. This book is a tour de force through the history of printed editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as providing background and history about the works themselves. There were 5,586 printings of Homer from the Renaissance to the year 2000 CE, and the author goes to great lengths to list them and highlight various translations.

The meat of the book is Part 1, where Young discusses Homer, who or what he was, and theories on how the text was created and passed down through the ages. Part 2 lists all the printed editions from 1470-2000. Part 3 is a set of appendices that break down editions by publisher, city of publication, translator, and when the first edition appeared in vernacular languages. The book is worth its value for the bibliography (part 2) and the cross references (part 3).

Homer was mostly lost in Europe after the fall of Rome. Scholars knew the name and some fuzzy information about the Trojan War, but there were few details. Knowledge of Greek itself was sparse and the texts weren’t translated into Latin until 1444. But, in the Byzantine Empire (formerly the eastern part of the Roman empire), Greek flourished and Homer was studied by scholars and schoolboys for centuries. When refugees fled the collapse of the Byzantine empire in 15th century, they came through Italy and up into Europe, bringing wth them the language of the Greeks and Homer.

When discussing particular translations, Young often focuses on the Iliad’s proem (prelude), which gives the theme of the poem to follow. In the Iliad, Young gives an interlinear translation that is just so cool that I have to quote it:

Menin aeide, thea, Peleiado Achilleos
Wrath sing, O goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles,

oulomenen, [h]e muri Achaiois alge etheken,
destructive, which to many Achaians pains caused

pollas d’iphthimous psychas Aidi proiapsen
many and brave souls to Hades sent

[h]eroon, autous de [h]eloria teuche kunessin
of heroes, them and prey prepared for dogs

oionoisi te daita– Dios d’eteleieto boule–,
for birds and feasts–of Zeus and was fulfilling will–,

ex [h]ou de ta prota diasteten erisante
from which they first parted contended

Atreides te anax andron kai dios Achilleus
son of Atreus king of men and godlike Achilles.
(p. 90-91)

I also enjoyed the burlesque editions of the 18th century. Some were hilarious, e.g. Thomas Bridge’s from the 18th century. It was so bawdy, that it was cleaned up when it was republished in the Victorian era (1889):

Come, Mrs. Muse, but, if a maid,
Then come Miss Muse, and lend me aid!
Ten thousand jingling verses bring,
That I Achilles’ wrath may sing,
That I may chant in curious fashion
This doughty hero’s boiling passion…
(p. 121)

Young constantly points out neat things. For example, almost every single translator of Homer lamented the end of their translation project. They grew attached to the text and felt sad to be finished their work with it. Young tells of the discovery of a lost ancient Greek letter, the digamma, which would have had a “w” sound and was critical for linking words in the text to fit the proper meter and aid in the flow of the text (p. 92). Petrarch, an Italian poet and scholar, was ecstatic upon receiving a copy of Homer in Greek, even though he read no Greek yet. Still, he embraced the volume, hoping to one day “hear” him speak (p. 78).

The one problem I alluded to is the author asking why we should study Homer. He says its trendy to “deride or intentionally ignore” works from the dead white European male curriculum (p. 3). He says he’ll explain why it’s important to read Homer, and even that it’ll be fun, but he never explores why that curriculum has been contested for the last few decades. The rest of Part I lays out an excellent case for studying Homer, and Young even suggests we read not only Homer but novels from outside the Western canon as well. But, at the end, it feels like he backpedals, and his last few pages sound like a tirade against technology and changes in education and Western/American culture.

But, as I said, this book is amazing by being informative, entertaining and an indispensable reference source.

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Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov

Foundation's EdgeFoundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this when it came out in the early 80s and picked up a first edition hardcover of it for $6 from my local used bookstore. I’m pretty sure I loved it when it came out. I was on the waiting list at our local library and got it within a few weeks of release. I really enjoyed reading and then rereading The Foundation Trilogy so I was looking forward to reading this one again.

Sadly, it didn’t stand up to the test of “my” time. There’s a lot of sexism, typical of scifi, even though we’re starting to get a little later on in time (1982). The female archetypes used are so pathetic. We have a manipulative, scheming woman who’s always wrong; a power-hungry older woman who thinks she’s always right; and two “girls” whose real strengths are not based on their gender/biology but on things outside their control. Wow, I didn’t notice that as a child, which is just sad on my part. As a child, I devoured Asimov’s Foundation books, and also ones like Colossus (D F Jones), A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller), and Friday (Heinlein). The stories were fast moving adventures, with lots of technology and crystal clear ideologies. I never really thought about what I was reading, but some of it I must have internalized. Reading with a more critical eye at a much later date, I’m surprised at a lot of the writing. Not all writers did this, so one can’t just say it was “the times.” But, many authors, especially science fiction ones, kept creating and recreating these stereotypes and philosophies. It’s no wonder we have things like “Gamergate” today.

The ending of this book also seemed to come out of nowhere in the final pages. And, it ended with a major hanging thread, explicitly meant as a hook for a sequel. Worse, the author’s afterword was simply a tawdry hawking of his other books.

I did enjoy the opportunity to think about how well books survive over time. Science fiction books tend, in my opinion, to get dated very quickly, especially those with technological components. The whole Foundation series seems so “old-fashioned” now but at the time, it was at or beyond our scientific ken. Books like Neuromancer also fit into this. When it was published, it was trailblazing. But, I read it many years later, and the technology portions seemed quaint. On the flip side, the interpersonal relations, the human components, can go to great lengths in making a book timeless. I can still read books from the late 18th and early 19th century and relate to the people and activities in them (e.g. Ann Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Byron, Percy Shelley, etc.).

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Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition by Jane Austen

I was so torn by trying to rate this OWC edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and several short stories (one complete, two fragments). If I rated it based on Northanger Abbey, I’d have to give it 1 star. I hated it. I also disliked The Watsons and Sandition, though as these were unfinished or discarded manuscripts, it’s not fair to judge them too harshly.

But, were I to rate this collection solely on Lady Susan, I wouldn’t hesitate to say 5 stars immediately. I am a huge fan of the epistolary format. Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther) introduced me to this style and I’ve been drawn to it ever since. Lady Susan was a fast-paced, exciting story that used letters between the various actors to explain and further the plot and show us the characters internal and external thoughts. This story saved the volume for me! I loved it and couldn’t wait to read each succeeding letter.

I ended up choosing 3 stars for an overall rating. When I next pick up this book, maybe I’ll boost it up another star, to recognize Lady Susan.

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