Category Archives: Books

Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

a-wide-open-hell

It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

as-above-so-below-ceiling

(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

Great books gone but not forgotten

I’ve posted before about unread books and those that were never finished, but what of those that were written but subsequently lost or destroyed.

Here’s a fascinating but wistful review of In Search of Lost Books, by Giorgio van Straten. There are some great stories here: as well as the vast numbers of lost plays and books from the ancient Library of Alexandria, there are books from Byron, diaries from Plath and short stories from Hemingway, amongst others, to lament.

The fleeting tale of great lost books, now gone forever
… And fire too (perhaps) destroyed the papers Walter Benjamin is said to have carried with him in a black suitcase on his failed flight from France to Spain, escaping Nazi persecution. The novelist Bruno Arpaia, thinking wishfully in The Angel of History, imagines that Benjamin gave the suitcase to a Spanish partisan to carry across the border. Van Straten suggests, rather, that Benjamin might have used his papers to light a bonfire to keep him and his fellow exiles warm in the cold night of the Pyrenees. Or, he asks, almost as an afterthought, “is it too much to hope that sooner or later – by chance, scholarship or passion – someone will discover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

Hong Kong librarian has had enough of your tardiness

Librarian Gone Rogue: Impatient bibliophile accused of accessing library members’ accounts to quicken book returns
Patrons were checking out books that she wanted to read, and the woman was just not having it, according to Apple Daily.

The librarian, a 25-year-old contract employee at the Tseung Kwan O Public Library between 2015 and 2018, reported their cards as lost and changed their account passwords so they had to return their books immediately, according to the report.

Well, that’s one way of dealing with overdue library books.

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

remarkable-meaningless-1

Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

remarkable-meaningless-2

A book 20 years in the writing

A great piece by Craig Mod about kottke.org, a website I’ve been following for many years now.

If kottke.org were a book
There are so few websites that have been around for twenty years. Certainly so few that are not explicitly commercial in intent, built on a singular voice and point of view. Because of that, sites like kottke.org have a special emotional resonance not often found online. For those of us who have not just used the web but built on the web for decades, a place like kottke.org becomes almost physical in its emotional resonance.

The web’s been slowly turning to crap over recent years, with all the fun melting away like dropped ice cream, but kottke.org has been one of the few fixed points. Long may it continue.

The Emperor’s new Kindle

Napoleon, according to this article from Open Culture, owned so many books he needed his own personal librarian. He was also very keen on having a significant collection of his books with him whenever he went travelling. This worked well for a while…

Napoleon’s Kindle: see the miniaturized traveling library he took on military campaigns
… but eventually “Napoleon found that many books which he wanted to consult were not included in the collection,” for obvious reasons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librarian these orders:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

In sum: not only did Napoleon possess a traveling library, but when that traveling library proved too cumbersome for his many and varied literary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cases but even more portable books made for him. … This prefigured in a highly analog manner the digital-age concept of recreating books in another format specifically for compactness and convenience — the kind of compactness and convenience now increasingly available to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon never could have imagined, let alone demanded.

A bookshop, but not as we know it?

The novelist Chuck Wendig visited an Amazon Bookstore for the first time recently. It was an unsettling experience.

My trip to an Amazon Bookstore: a review
Now, stepping foot into a physical Amazon bookstore is immediately surreal, in part because Amazon has for so long been a purely digital entity — so, when you enter this space, you become momentarily concerned that you have just shoved your Meatspace Body into a Cyberspace Realm, like you’ve broken some critical rule of reality. “WAIT IS THIS THE MATRIX. IS THIS THE OASIS. IS THIS REAL. ARE MY FINGER-TOUCHES ANALOGOUS TO MOUSE-CLICKS. IF I TOUCH A BOOK DO I BUY IT. AM I JUST TALKING IN BINARY CODE NOW.” (“Sir, you’re being weird,” one of the booksellers helpfully whispers into my ear.)

The other aspect of surreality comes from the fact that all the books are face out.

The trip left him a little cold, and not just because of that strange shelving choice.