August Selections

I am once again selecting three books from the list of books 'on the back burner' recommended to me by readers to read and write marginal commentaries for. I'll try to get my hands on these books to read and comment upon them for August.

The books selected are:
The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson.
An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison.

My congratulations and thanks to those whose previous selections were chosen this time: Sarah, Graham, and Deborah!

I'm looking forward to reading them.


There and Back Again

In light of the fact that, in December 2012, Warner Bros., in co-operation with New Line Cinema and MGM, is releasing the first of the two movies (directed and produced by Peter Jackson, who made the wildly successful films in the early noughts based on The Lord of the Rings) based on The Hobbit, I think it is time for a marginal commentary on that book, one of J. R. R. Tolkien's early works.

The Hobbit, of course, is not of the same calibre as The Lord of the Rings, whose relationship to it is complicated. It would be more accurate to view The Hobbit as a precursor of the larger work, than to view the latter as its sequel, for it took Tolkien many years to write The Lord of the Rings, and into it he poured all of his literary power. However, both The Hobbit (albeit peripherally) and The Lord of the Rings are related to Tolkien's legendarium, his mythopoeic vision.

Except for those two works, Tolkien did not publish anything directly connected to his legendarium (the corpus of which may be found in his posthumous works The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, and in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, all of which were edited by Christopher Tolkien) , but we know that he began crafting the stories and languages that would shape and form it (actually, that should be the other way around) while recuperating from trench fever during World War I. An excellent book that traces the development of Tolkien's literary work from its infancy during the Great War is John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War.

My purpose in this marginal commentary will be to explore some of the literary strengths of The Hobbit. As I shall show, much of its excellence stems from passages which are of the same kind of writing at which Tolkien excelled in The Lord of the Rings (about which see my marginal commentary on Brian Rosebury's book Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon). I shall also explore whether The Hobbit's only excellences are those it has in common with The Lord of the Rings, or whether it possesses any peculiar to itself. Given some of its flaws, it is easy to dismiss The Hobbit as a 'kid's book' (even though it, and many other works of children's literature besides, is better than many a 'grown-up' book), so it is worth asking what, if anything, it has of itself that makes it a worthwhile read.

On we go.


On Learning Literary Criticism

The following passage, from Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (Brian Rosebury; 2nd Ed.; Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; pp. 198-9) is an apt description of how we are taught to do literary criticism in school. I remember doing something like this kind of work in my English classes in high school, and it would appear to be quite common across the pond, too:
Among reputable academic literary critics... [t]he damaging assimilation [of The Lord of the Rings to something else in order to show it is a bad book] has, in general, to be to other books, and to be based on some demonstrable resemblance, however fleeting. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the training provided by academic literary criticism is, in part, a training in making a great deal of fleeting details, inculcating as it does from high school onwards a routine in which large assertions are supported by small quotations. In practice this is hard to avoid. The examination candidate writes that Shakespeare in Othello makes extensive thematic use of animal images; and quotes — as she has been coached to do — a couple of lines from Act 3 to prove it. (This is called 'supporting your ideas with evidence'.) No one could possibly ask her to prove that these lines are in fact representative of a pattern visible across the play as a whole. The credibility of the proof by brief quotation depends on a prior consensus about the meaning of the play, to which the candidate is required to conform, as well as an essentially formalist poetics which views literary works as highly-wrought unities in which every detail may be assumed to subserve some thematic purpose of the whole. Once this routine has been inculcated, however, it can be exploited later in the student's career for a kind of glib dismissiveness. John Carey, for example, claims that The Lord of the Rings is 'a children's book', much of it in the style of Enid Blyton, and singles out as illustrations a few sentences from an early chapter, including the phrase: 'and of course his special friends, Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck' (FR, 76). It is true that something like this passage could occur in Blyton, that Pippin and Merry are juvenile names, and that 'special friends' in many contexts could seem sentimental or arch. Colin Wislon says that The Lord of the Rings 'at its worst ... has touches of Enid Blyton', which is fair enough because it claims nothing beyond local resemblances. I have myself noted some 'incongruous lapses' in the style of these early chapters. The problem with Carey's assimilation [of the style of The Lord of the Rings to the style of Enid Blyton] is the unfounded claim of typicality. There is, after all, nothing exclusively [italics original] Blytonian about the phrase 'special friends' itself; what makes it reminiscent of her, especially if we pluck it out of its context and hold it up for inspection, is that Blyton rarely strays outside such cosy bourgeois-domestic intimacies as the phrase might capture. Readers turn to Blyton, as to other genre writers, because they know what they will get: lots and lots of the same. An attentive reading of the episode will show that Tolkien's style modulates into, and out of, the admittedly insipid passage to which Carey objects.
Enid Blyton authored numerous books, short stories, and other writings, among the most famous being her children's books about 'The Famous Five'. I have not read any of Blyton's works, but suffice it to say it would appear her reputation among literary critics of 'serious' literature is poor, and to such an extent that when assimilated to Blyton, The Lord of the Rings suffers as a result. The gem of this passage is the parenthetical comment by Rosebury about the example he gives on a student writing about Othello: 'This is called "supporting your ideas with evidence".' Burn.

Earlier in Tolkien, on p. 196, Rosebury defines assimilation thus:
In assimilation, the distinctive features of the original work, instead of forming the basis of an application to some new context, tend rather to be erased or eroded, in order to locate the work within some more familiar category. Assimilation, then, is the enemy of critical analysis or scholarly inquiry.
Take that, John Carey. Take that.


Planet Narnia

Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward, is one of my recent favourites. I recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.

I came across Planet Narnia in the library at Huron University College while searching for books to read on another book by C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces. (If I may digress, Till We Have Faces, in my view, is Lewis's best novel; indeed, I would go so far to say that, excepting some of his better academic works, it is his masterpiece). I read it voraciously, and so thoroughly enjoyed it that I wrote a review of it which I posted on my defunct LiveJournal, and even went so far as to post a portion of that review on a site dedicated to reader reviews of Planet Narnia; you can see my humble contribution here.

In my view, Planet Narnia is to the Chronicles of Narnia as Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon is to The Lord of the Rings; that is, it is a work of literary criticism the insight of which is so brilliant it outshines other works. Put another way, I view Planet Narnia as a sun with respect to the Chronicles of Narnia, brightly illuminating every place. Other works of literary criticism on the Chronicles are like the stars, providing a dim and feeble light but often pretty to look at in their own right, or else like the moon, capable of brightening some aspect of the Chronicles but not as strongly as the sun can.

But what is it about Planet Narnia that makes it such an insightful and penetrating work? To discover that is the purpose of this marginal commentary, by peering closely at Planet Narnia and seeing by what means Dr Ward appears to so accurately delve into the Chronicles of Narnia.


The China Study vs. The Food and Nutrition Board

Just wanted to share this bit (pp. 306-7) from The China Study, in which Campbell criticises the nutriet recommendations in a 2002 report by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB).
A few quotes from the news release announcing this massive 900+ page report says it all. Here is the first sentence in the news release:
To meet the body's daily energy and nutritional needs while minimizing risk for chronic disease, adults should get 45% to 65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fat and to 10% to 35% from protein....
Further, we find:
...added sugars should comprise no more than 25% of total calories consumed....added sugars are those incorporated into foods and beverages during production [and] major sources include candy, soft drinks, fruit drinks, pastries and other sweets.
... Forget any words of caution you may find in this report—with such a range of possibilities, virtually any diet can be advocated as minimizing disease risk.
You may have trouble getting your mind around what these figures mean in everyday terms, so I have prepared the following menu plan that supplies nutrients in accordance with these guidelines... .
The menu plan comes in the form of a chart, and Campbell's 'recommended' menu plan based on the FNB's guidelines include:
  • For breakfast: 1 cup Froot Loops, 1 cup skim milk, 1 package M&Ms, fibre & vitamin supplements (Flintstones vitamins, anyone?)
  • For lunch: a grilled cheddar cheeseburger.
  • For dinner: 3 slices of pepperoni pizza, and a medium (16 oz) pop, and for dessert a serving of sugar cookies.


The China Study

First, my thanks to May for recommending this book!

The China Study is the second book that I have read and commented upon on The Marginal Virtues that was written by more than one author. The first was The Rebel Sell, the authors of which were Canadian philosophers. The China Study is probably the most technically complex work which I have read for the blog, and the credentials of its authors the most professional, although, as the example of The Rebel Sell shows, they are hardly the only professionals whose work I have written about. (By 'professional' I mean someone with an accredited profession, not whether the authors were paid for their work, which would be true with respect to very nearly every book I have written about.) Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death in relation to his profession; and so with Robert Farrar Capon, Rob Brendle, Brian Rosebury, and Paul Scott Wilson.

The edition from which I shall be quoting was published by BenBella Books in 2006. My copy is of the paperback edition, in case the pagination of this edition differs from that of the hardcover.


Isaiah 33.14

Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?
Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnination?
This is a version of Isaiah 33.14 that I found at the end of a YouTube video featuring the 'Trogdor song'. I was amused. (Insert jibe about being easily amused here.)

I'm certain no English translation of the verse actually says 'burnination'; undoubtedly the maker of the image into which this gobbet of Scripture was put modified the text. The Authorised Version gives 'everlasting burnings', the NRSV and Jerusalem Bible give 'everlasting flames'; the REB gives 'perpetual flames'; the NIV 'everlasting burning'. Of course, perhaps the fact that 'burnination' is not actually a word has something to do with that.