Posts from February 2015
February 28th, 2015
Our book today goes by a title Stevereads has already anointed as alluring: To Wake the Mangog! (I added the exclamation point that the book’s own packagers shamefully omitted) – it’s a thick volume in Marvel Comics’ ongoing “Epic Collection” series of color reprints from the archives.
This is the fourth “Epic Collection” of Thor comics, and those four inadvertently serve as a pretty good illustration of how weird this whole reprint line is. Volume One was called The God of Thunder and featured the first twenty-five issues of Thor’s appearance in Journey into Mystery; Volume Two was called A Kingdom Lost and featured a slew of utterly undistinguished 1980s issues written boringly by Mark Gruenwald and drawn boringly by Keith Pollard; and Volume Three was called War of the Pantheons, a great collection of issues from the 1990s written by Tom DeFalco and drawn lovingly by Ron Frenz in full Kirby-homage mode. And because the “Epic Collections” are supposed to be pieces in an enormous ongoing tapestry, the first Thor volume might be #1, but the second is listed as #11 and the third was #16. To Wake the Mangog is still #4, but it’s damn odd. My only hope is that it betokens Marvel’s intention to reprint not only the whole run of Thor but also the whole run of their entire back catalogue. The completeness of it would be nice, even though any collection that features Keith Pollard (or, Odin help us, Larry Leiber) can hardly call itself “epic.”
Actually, that same unevenness is a bit on display even in To Wake the Mangog! (sorry – but it’s Stan Lee at his full throttle – it needs an exclamation point!) The collection starts with the great four-issue storyline that all but defines “epic” in the Thor line, in which the titular creature, the Mangog, a being of incalculable physical power (the strength of a billion billion beings!), assaults Asgard, the home of the Norse gods. And almost missing a step (there’s a reprint issue – remember those? – of Thor’s first appearance in Journey into Mystery), the collection moves on to a somewhat disjointed story that finds Thor caught between the world-devouring Galactus and the sentient planet Ego – certainly doesn’t get much more “epic” than that (except maybe for the great two-part Doctor Strange story in which the Earth is destroyed and then reconstituted, with only the Doctor remembering it – but we’ll get to the fantastic Gene Colan Doctor Strange again in good time here at Stevereads).
He and his Asgardian allies fight Pluto, the Greek god of death, and then there’s an odd interlude-story where the super-powered artificial being called Him decides that he wants to lose his virginity to … Thor’s immortal girlfriend, the goddess Sif. Not even the febrile imagination of Stan Lee attempts to come up with an actual reason for this – he just steams ahead, having Him abduct Sif and spirit her away. It incenses Thor – actually drives him to what Lee calls “The Warrior’s Madness” (oddly, Lee avoids calling it by its actual Viking term of berserker-fury). Even though Sif herself keeps assuring Thor that Him hasn’t harmed her, that Him is just a misunderstood man-child, but it doesn’t matter: Thor is lost in rage:
Speak not to Thor of madness! Speak only of revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Such as none who live have ever known! If Balder call me mad, so be it! Of what use is sanity, when naught but power will prevail? And in all the world – save for regal Odin – there be no power to equal mine!
Him manages to escape, and when Thor calms down, he has to face the music for succumbing to the Warrior’s Madness – and the punishment Odin imposes is equally epic: he’s to seek out Galactus again and learn the world-devourer’s origins and intentions. And what Lee serves up is intentionally off-kilter: Thor and Galactus don’t fight – they sit and talk.
But the rest of the collection falters, and not just because Kirby’s artwork is gradually growing weirder and more disassociated but because Lee’s writing is gradually growing a bit phoned-in. The volume limps to a finish with Thor fighting killer robots and mortal bad guys and only barely manages to finish up with a win by presenting some of Jack Kirby’s original pencil-layouts for some of the pages reprinted earlier.
Even so, it’s by far the best “Epic Collection” of Thor that’s appeared so far, and it brought me a couple of hours of very warm re-reading. I of course eagerly bought all these individual issues as they first appeared, parting with 12 cents each time and flipping through their pages while my beagles snored all around me, and it quite apart from enjoying the stories all over again, it was nice to be reminded of those days.
February 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics were custom-made to be very handy for traveling, which makes them extra-poignant in the Boston of February 2015, in which nobody packs bags or quick satchels because travel of any kind is impossible and has been for many, many weeks. All flights into or out of Logan Airport have been cancelled, and the large electronic announcement-boards that once told travelers the status of their flights have been dismantled, boxed up, and shipped to more fortunate cities for use in their airports. All roadways were first closed by order of the National Guard and have now been buried under many feet of the snow which has fallen continuously in howling, ripping gales for the last several years. The plucky I’m-an-individual A-holes who thought they’d turn that frown upside-down and don skis for traveling across snow-covered thoroughfares have all been killed and eaten by starving natives driven to such desperation by the shuttering of their fifteen local Dunkin Donuts. There are no sidewalks; the narrow, winding goat-paths battered out by the first waves of evacuating citizenry have long since first frozen over and then been buried in fresh snow. But there’s no need for sidewalks in any case, since it’s not possible to leave the house – twenty-foot snowpacks have blocked all doors and windows for many weeks, and those snowpacks themselves have been reinforced by fifty-foot-tall man-thick icicles extending from the roof to what used to be known as the “ground.”
So one of the two clear design-intentions of the famous Penguin Classics ’60s’ – the little square paperbacks the publisher produced in joyous profusion to mark its 60th anniversary of business – is now thwarted: these cute little things were clearly designed both for quick reading – they’re no more than 80 pages apiece – and for quick access, capable of being slipped into a pocket on the way out the door. But nobody in Boston goes out the door anymore. The door was first snow-blocked and then ice-frozen shut, and more snow is falling as I type this, and much more snow is forecast in the upcoming months, followed by freezing sleet, followed by sub-zero temperatures (for a long stretch last week, fey meteorologists from other parts of the world commented, correctly, that Boston was at that point colder than any other place on Earth; none of those meteorologists was cruel enough to add that Boston was also colder than the equatorial regions of Mars). So traveling with my Penguin 60s is out of the question.
But that still leaves enjoying them, and that’s no small thing, because these are very, very enjoyable little books.
The aforementioned joyous profusion was nerdily sub-categorized, of course (this is Penguin we’re talking about, after all), with different color-codings for different kinds of 60s classics – orange spines for some, black spines for others (there was also a sotto voce sub-categorization of a type also typical of Penguin: a different and slightly brainier set of titles was chosen for UK-only distribution. If asked, Penguin would say this was for copyright reasons, but the whiff of colonial condescension is mighty pronounced). The color-coding doesn’t make much sense in this case, but it certainly breaks up the look of these things on the shelf.
And the 60s themselves are fascinating. At first glance, they seem entirely traditional: a little bit of Beowulf, a few essays of Montaigne, a dialogue from Plato, some short stories by acknowledged masters, etc. But the more you actually read these charming little things, the more you realize how effectively they shift canonical feelings rather than reinforce them.
There are no Introductions. There are no notes. There’s none of the scene-setting for which Penguin Classics are renowned these days. And most of the works themselves are presented free from their own contexts: you get the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – not in a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle stories, nor even in an anthology of Victorian crime fiction, but rather just standing there, on its own (well, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” is included as well, but you take my meaning). You get Livy’s account of Hannibal crossing the Alps – but only that, not the rest of Livy. Same thing with the enormity of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – here, you just get 85 pages of Gibbon’s thoughts on the subject, not three 800-page books. True, you get the entirety of such short works as Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” or the “Lysistrata” of Aristophanes, but even in such cases, there’s something oddly new-seeming about getting just the slim translation, with no supporting material or contextualization. As strange as it seems, it really can prompt a fresh examination of the works themselves.
Of course, they’re not for everybody. I once handed somebody a gift of the Penguin 60s Classic of Eudora Welty’s famous short story “Why I Live at the PO” and watched as the recipient recoiled in horror and outright refused to accept it (ah, the gracelessness of today’s young people – one of the world’s truly inexhaustible resources) – not because the story isn’t its usual sublime self, but because of the format of the little paperback. But I myself used to love popping one of these little things into a pocket or shoulder-bag when I was headed out for a day that might be long on unforeseen waiting periods and short on good reading material.
I don’t do that anymore, of course. I don’t go outside anymore. I can’t go outside anymore. Which means I’ll miss Penguin’s celebration of their 80th anniversary, which I hear is going to take the form of an entirely new set of little black paperbacks. That celebration will happen out in the wider world where people still have kinds of weather that aren’t snow and freezing sleet.
But I’ll always have my memories of such a world. And I’ll always have these cute little Penguin 60s Classics … at least until I run low on kindling.
February 20th, 2015
Our books today comprise a small Stevereads landmark: my very first book-haul from Book Outlet!
As some of you will know, I’m delighted to spend time watching all the enthusiastic young people (and a few old enough to know better!) over in the nerdy, inordinately friendly corner of YouTube known as “BookTube.” I love the camaraderie in the ranks of the second-tier BookTubers I watch regularly (the first-tier of BookTubers, like the first tier of all other kinds of YouTubers, is entirely populated by martinet A-holes who have $15,000 professional lighting systems, bone-deep contempt for their viewers, and not one single scrap of interest in the worth of the ‘content’ they’re making)(so I don’t watch them), and I find their unabashed enthusiasm for all things books and reading completely endearing. I even like some of their shared activities – the “tags” they inflict on each other, the bookshelf-tours they sometimes take their readers on, and of course the “book hauls” they so regularly film, in which they hold their latest book- acquisitions up to the camera and talk about them.
The last is my favorite, I admit. There’s something so geekishly natural about it, not just in terms of the new-owner’s joy of a stack of recently-purchased books but also as a reflection on just how seldom any of us ever really gets to do such a victory-dance in real life. On the two-hour car-ride back from the mighty Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, or on the subway uptown back from the mighty Strand bookstore in New York City, or even just lugging a bulging tote bag of books home from the Brattle, or the Goodwill, or the Boston Public Library Book Sale, I have many times experienced the euphoria of suddenly owning a bunch more good books, but in virtually all of those circumstances, going back many, many years and including many, many different groups of accompanying friends, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anybody I’ve been with has ever asked me any variation of “So! What-all did you just get, and why does it excite you?”
With BookTube book-haul videos, that slight disappointment is, as it were, edited out. Each BookTuber is free to imagine that every single viewer is deeply interested in these new additions to Ye Olde Personal Library – and the resulting enthusiasm is pretty contagious. It’s a reminder to me that I should do more book-haul entries here on Stevereads.
And even inside the ‘shared activities,’ there are deeper buried traits – and the one I couldn’t help noticing was just how many BookTubers seem to buy their books from the online remainder store called Book Outlet. At first I thought their natural first choice would be Amazon, simply for its breadth of selection. Then I thought perhaps the first choice would be the Book Depository, since BookTube is a very international group, and the Book Depository’s shipping is free. Then I thought perhaps BookTubers shy away from those two options because Book Depository is owned by Amazon and Amazon is openly, almost parodically evil – except most of the BookTubers I follow don’t seem like the type who would know that or care.
Whatever the reason (I suspect it has to do with the #1 disease of BookTube, YA fiction, but I’m trying not to think about that), Book Outlet certainly reigns supreme among BookTubers as the book-buying venue of choice. So even though my own book-buying venue of choice is well-known (a good place to remind you all that the Brattle Bookshop here in snowbound Boston accepts phone orders for gift certificates in any amount, and you need not even be clear on my last name – just call them up – 617-542-0210 – and say “I’d like to buy a gift certificate for Steve” – they’ll know who you mean), I get such enjoyment from BookTube and have made so many delightful email buddies there that I just had to try Book Outlet for myself!
So I spent a while delightedly browsing (what Rose Macaulay wrote about Bookseller Catalogues back in 1935 is every bit as true here in 2015, and it applies equally well to online catalogues as to print ones), then I placed my order and patiently waited. And about ten days later, just before Boston’s fifteenth massive blizzard closed the city down for days, my cute little package came in the mail!
It was just two books, to start with. I didn’t want to overdo things until I knew whether or not I’d like all the non-book essentials of how Book Outlet does business – the efficiency of the shipping, the condition of the books, that sort of thing. But the books came in normal shipping time and in fine condition, so there I was, almost like a BookTuber (only one who’s too old and too ugly and too tech-inept to have a video channel), eagerly opening a book-package from Book Outlet!
My two choices were gems, in their own individual ways. First there was To Crave a Blood Moon, the 2009 third installment in Sharie Kohler’s “Moon Chasers” series, and it was what the kids on BookTube refer to as a “cover buy” (they’ve got a word for everything! Except maybe “persistent literary pedophilia,” but again, I’m trying not to think about that): because there on the cover (presumably under a full moon – a rather odd cover-omission for a book with this title), looking sultry and semi-shirted as always, is our old friend Paul Marron! In this book, he’s going by the euphonious name of Sebastian Santiago, a half-werewolf desperately trying to hold onto his humanity.
But although his name might be different, his predicament is reassuringly familiar – he’s the chained and helpless captive of a vicious group of “lycans” who are using him as an involuntary sex-stud in an attempt to sire some vigorous lycan puppies. When it comes to tight chains and sexual servitude, we know we’re in home territory, and Kohler’s purple prose, um, rises to the occasion:
The only time they ever treated him to [sic] gentleness was when they wanted to rouse [sic] him. Physically, he could not prevent himself from responding. His body had become his worst enemy – his greatest weakness. No matter how he loathed them, they succeeded in using him.
When the lycan group throws beautiful, strong-willed American Ruby Devereux into half-starved Sebastian’s cage in the hopes his hunger will overcome his restraint, all hell breaks loose – but not in the way the lycans expect, and Kohler’s novel quickly romps along from there.
The second book I got from Book Outlet isn’t quite the romp of To Crave a Blood Moon, but I ended up liking it just as much: it’s The Birth of Classical Europe by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, in a neat Penguin paperback from 2010. I’m a sucker for Troy-to-the-Caesars trots like this one, even though it’s been 270 years since I actually learned anything from any of them. This one is as beautifully put together as all other Penguin paperbacks, and Price and Thonemann do a wonderful, comprehensive job of outlining huge swaths of European and Mediterranean history. My favorite of their many techniques is to remember constantly that the mental and rhetorical forces of history are always at work, shaping the way whole societies see themselves:
The political structures of the Roman Republic familiar in the world of Cicero in the first century BC consisted of the Senate, the people and the magistrates. This tripartite structure was perhaps first articulated by Greek observers of Rome, long used to the system of council, assembly and magistrates in Greek city-states. Polybius, writing in the later second century BC, offered a classic statement of the case, arguing that Rome’s phenomenal strength in his day was derived from the balance between the three elements. Such views, flattering as they were to Rome, were internalized by the Romans, and came to form part of the ways that they thought about their own state. But it would be a mistake to project, as the Romans did, a tripartite analysis of Rome back into the early Republic, let alone the regal period. There are good grounds for thinking that earlier structures were very different.
So I was very pleased with my first-ever Book Outlet book haul! But even so, I realize something key is missing, and that key is made of cardboard: a box was missing! A real Book Outlet book haul consists of so many books that a box – stamped with “Book Outlet” – is required to get them all to my front door. But the folks at Book Outlet are canny: they sent me a coupon for $5 off my next order!
February 19th, 2015
Nothing warms up the icy snowbound ventricles quite like a burst of outrage, and I got one of those recently when I encountered a block of pure editorial cowardice in the Penny Press. Specifically, it was in the 5 February 2015 issue of the London Review of Books (although the cover is misprinted as 2014), and perhaps predictably, the subject was the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the letters column, a reader named Simon Hammond writes:
As a devoted reader of the LRB I am deeply disappointed by your immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. No message of solidarity, no support for freedom of expression. I would have thought that the execution of the editorial staff of a magazine a few hours’ journey from your own office would provoke a more heartfelt response.
To which Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, replies:
I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please. Those – and there are many – who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for ‘freedom of expression’ are allowing people the freedom to say ‘Je suis Charlie’ but nothing else. There are many other things to be said about the attacks and their aftermath: for some of them, see Tariq Ali in this issue …
The craven nature of such stuff is matched by its worminess; the dodge in the reprehensible first line is only deepened by the insinuating obliqueness of the last line – “there are many other things to be said about the attacks” … many things other than ‘freedom of expression,’ that is, and what might those things be? Are they in fact really plural? Can those ‘other things’ really be anything except some damn variation of “Charlie Hebdo had it coming”? Isn’t that the only construction that can be put on the weaselly line “I don’t believe I have the right to insult whomever I please”?
I read Wilmers’ disgusting response to Hammond over and over, trying and failing to see it as anything other than a preemptive plea for mercy from the same people who sent the killers to Charlie Hebdo. Why, except from cowardice, would Wilmer voluntarily, eagerly surrender a right she in fact does possess, the right to insult whomever she pleases? Not slander or libel whomever she pleases – nobody was slandered in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and you famously can’t libel the dead – but insult, which indeed is the kind of freedom-of-expression thing (without the noxious scare-quotes, as if the term is some baroque oddity she found in a dusty old book) the editor of the London Review of Books should defend.
But she directed me to Tariq Ali’s piece in the same issue, so I went and read it, which did nothing at all to calm my outrage. Ali’s piece is of course much longer than Wilmer’s cringing, posturing little paragraph, and if anything it’s more opaque, more careful in its appeasements. Ali is always a careful writer, but I’ve hardly ever seen his prodigious gifts exercised in making less worthy points:
In the week following the atrocities, a wave of moral hysteria swept France. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became almost obligatory … Slowly, a more critical France is beginning to speak up. An opinion poll two days after the big march [in the wake of the shootings] revealed a divided country: 57 per cent were ‘Je suis Charlie’s, but 42 per cent were opposed to hurting the feelings of minorities.
More critical … incredible. As if the thousands of people – including hundreds of writers and intellectuals just like Ali – put no critical thought into their ‘Je suis Charlie’ responses but were just wildly – hysterically – flailing. The baiting-and-switching going on here is even more revolting than the kind Wilmers uses; the opposition being set up between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and hurting the feelings of minorities is revoltingly deceitful in its use of euphemisms. “Je suis Charlie” is not an empty slogan; it’s an expression of solidarity with the idea that satire should be possible without the threat of lethal retaliation. And “hurting the feelings of minorities” is a prelude rather than a point; of course everybody’s opposed to hurting the feelings not just of minorities but of majorities. Of course hurt feelings are bad. But how were the hurt feelings of minorities expressed in this case? With a barrage of very pointed letters from Muslims and Muslim sympathizers cancelling Charlie Hebdo subscriptions? No: with a highly coordinated paramilitary attack designed to murder the Charlie Hebdo staff.
That cowards like Wilmers and Ali are so complacently willing to equate ‘insulting Muslims’ with ‘incurring Muslim violence’ – that they’re apparently willing to live in a world in which you refrain from hurting the feelings of minorities not because hurting feelings is rude but because you’re personally afraid of what will happen if you don’t – would be deplorable enough if they were just private citizens. But in a public intellectual and the editor of the London Review of Books? With the earth still turned on the graves of their slaughtered Charlie Hebdo peers? Freedom of expression had better watch out for its life, if two of its presumed defenders are half-way to Munich the instant clear battle-lines are drawn.
Maybe I’ll enjoy the rest of that LRB … provided nobody’s feelings are hurt …
February 15th, 2015
Our book today is one we turn to with some bitterness: The Poetic Edda, or Elder Edda, that medieval treasure-house of Norse mythology. After a week of fawningly propitiating a certain Deity Who shall remain nameless, and after having it amount to squat as a vicious “snow hurricane” struck poor, shivering Boston just the same, it dawned on me that I’d been attempting to appease a desert god, somebody Who’d probably never so much as seen snow in His entire life. It turned out that all the while, I was propitiating the celestial equivalent of a sunbathing Arizona retiree.
So now, as blinding white snow peppers the walls and windows of all around me and temperatures tremble on the edge of plunging off the scale, Stevereads swerves at last to propitiating the right crowd: the stern and bundled-up gods and goddesses of Norse mythology. These are gods who not only know all there is to know about ice and snow and cold but also fight it every day despite the fact that they know it’s a losing battle, that eventually their world will come to an end in Ragnarok, which will be preceded by the Fimbulwinter – which Boston is clearly experiencing as we speak. These are the Aesir and their supernatural cohorts, hardy creatures who know what it feels like to wake up cold in the morning.
Happily, last year the wonderful folks at Toronto’s Coach House Books produced a lovely paperback edition of a new translation of The Poetic Edda translated by poet Jeramy Dodds, who takes a wonderfully fresh approach to this oft-translated text and who, perhaps unfortunately, was allowed to write the Introduction to his own work. It’s got some rocky patches:
Like all translations, these are recreations that possess birthmark similarities, echoes, absolute similitudes and forgeries. They are re-enactors in period costume rehearsing a happening centuries after its origination. But the poems in the Poetic Edda have always been re-enactors: oral pagan poems, passed mouth to ear for centuries, until they were flash-frozen onto vellum sometime around 1270 by Christian monks in Iceland, centuries after they may have been known by heart. These poems are scored by elements of ancient Norther European lore, but a scribe who may or may not have understood them has refracted them through a distant lens. They were quilled in Old Icelandic, a variant of Old Norse. What you have here is a museum-guide replica of the original text, one made with the modern material of English.
Yes, yes, I saw it too: similitudes. And before you can even open your mouth, origination, and then “distant lens” … until you want to yank off his plaid ear-flap hat and shout at him to get to translating, bub. Fortunately, when he does get to translating, his genius jumps right out. He captures the clipped, no-nonsense nature of the Edda like no earlier translators, including the best-selling edition Vintage put out in 1970 under the title The Elder Edda: A Selection, with the translating being done by Paul Taylor and W. H. Auden (and touchingly dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien). Here’s a brief snippet from one of the Edda stories in which Odin, the king of the Norse gods, engages in one of his favorite pastimes: donning a disguise and swapping trivia with some hapless sap he plans to murder. In this case the sap is Vafthrudnir, who shares some key prophecies about Ragnarok before he realizes he’s been duped:
By whom in the end shall Odin fall,
When the High Ones are all destroyed?
Fenris will swallow the Father of Men:
This will Vidar avenge,
Cleaving asunder the cold jaws
In the last fight with Fenris.
What did Odin whisper in the ears of his son
Before Baldur was borne to the pyre?
You alone know that, what long ago
You said in the ears of your son.
I doomed myself when I dared to tell
What fate befell the gods,
And staked my wit against the wit of Odin,
Ever the wisest of all.
It’s true that such passages have been polished to an appealing fluidity (and seeded with signature Auden-style buried half-rhymes), but to a very large extent, what a 21st-century audience considers ‘appealing fluidity’ would have been strange and perhaps even distasteful to the audiences who gathered in chilly halls to hear these epic pieces performed. Dodds’s translation – by sticking to that ‘museum-guide replica’ authenticity (and by actually denoting speaking parts, which Taylor and Auden don’t do) – captures far more of both the mean wit and above all the tension of the encounter:
‘I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve tried
a lot, testing the Powers, but
how will Odin’s life leave him
once the Powers are slaughtered?’
‘Fenrir will wolf down the Father of Men,
but Vidar will avenge him,
he’ll pry apart the wolf’s cold jaw
after he’s battled the beast.’
‘I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve tried
a lot, testing the Powers, but
what did Odin whisper in Baldr’s ear
before he was laid on his pyre?’
‘No one knows what you whispered
into your son’s ear in those days long gone.
With my hexed mouth I told you
ancient lore and spoke of Ragnarok.
I’ve been waging my wits against Odin.
You’ve always been the wisest of all.’
That’s fine stuff, and this Coach House Poetic Edda offers a delightful 250 pages of it for readers who want a taste of a now-vanished world.
Vanished, that is, except for miserable, hunched, snow-buried Boston, now being battered by its sixth storm in 15 days (and with more snow in the week’s forecast). In Boston, the Fimbulwinter lives on, and so we turn the engine of Stevereads propitiation to Odin, who’s always been the wisest of all, and to burly Thor, his storm-herding son, and to all the other Aesir over the rainbow bridge in their shining city: don’t bury us completely from the sight of the world. We’ll repent. We’re sorry about our accent. We agree that we’ve probably overdone it with Dunkin Donuts. We’ll fix the T. We were only kidding about the Olympics. Please send the next four blizzards to New York City, which untouched by winter, rife with sin, and devoid of altars to bright Baldur.
February 14th, 2015
Sometimes, when it comes to propitiating the Deity, circumstances warrant going right to the top – and with poor wretched Boston staring wide-eyed at the latest ferocious oncoming “monster storm,” today seemed like one of those times. So with fear and trembling, I crept to my bookshelves and assembled the proverbial stack of Bibles on the altar … er, that is, the couch, in the silvery light of an afternoon rapidly being crumpled under the building weight of the “snow hurricane” bearing down from the upper Midwest. There in those pages I sought to know afresh the mind of a Deity who suddenly doesn’t like navigable sidewalks, pretty sunsets, or the MBTA.
At first I naturally turned to what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, the home of the version of the Deity who seems most susceptible to region-smiting rages like the one Boston has been enduring for the entire month of February. And when it comes to the Old Testament, our modern era as seen two nearly-simultaneous and wholly impressive English-language translations:
The Five Books of Moses – this first volume in the Schocken Bible is Everett Fox’s 1995 rendition of the Pentateuch, a top-to-bottom re-conception that Fox comes right out and says he intends to be uncomfortable to complacent monoglot readers:
The purpose of this work is to draw the reader into the world of the Hebrew Bible through the power of its language. While this sounds simple enough, it is not usually possible in translation. Indeed, the premise of almost all Bible translations, past and present, is that the “meaning” of the text should be conveyed in as clear and comfortable a manner as possible in one’s own language. Yet the truth is that the Bible was not written in English in the twentieth or even the seventeenth century; it is ancient, sometimes obscure, and speaks in a way quite different from ours. Accordingly, I have sought here primarily to echo the style of the original, believing that the Bible is best approached, at least at the beginning, on its own terms. So I have presented the text in English dress but with a Hebraic voice.
And certainly you can hear that “Hebraic voice” all throughout his translation, which features characters with names like Avraham, Yaakov, Yosef, and Moshe instead of the familiar versions, and which reads about as thoroughly alien to the steady old tradition of English-language Bibles as Fox could possibly make it without simply leaving it untranslated in the first place. A bit more approachable is:
The Five Books of Moses – this 2004 rendition by Robert Alter (in a gorgeous slip-case from the always-stylish folks at WW Norton) is less eye-openingly radical than Fox’s, although it starts off by asking many of the same questions, foremost of which is “why should we prefer your translation to any of the others?” … to which both Fox and Alter have the same answer, although Alter is a bit blunter about it:
Why, after so many English versions, a new translation of the Five Books of Moses? There is, as I shall explain in detail, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent, of the Hebrew Bible. Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew. The present translation is an experiment in re-presenting the Bible – and, above all, biblical narrative prose – in a language that conveys with some precision the semantic nuances and the lively orchestration of literary effects of the Hebrew and at the same time has stylistic and rhythmic integrity as literary English.
Naturally, as you can already see in these comments separated by a decade, the shadow that falls over any new translation of the Bible is the mighty King James version done four hundreds years ago and still rightly considered one of the indispensable works of translation ever accomplished from any language to any other language. It’s the King James that Barnes & Noble chose for their gorgeous illustrated leather bound Bible (I enthused about it here), and it’s the King James that’s at the heart of the two best paperback Bibles on the market today:
The Oxford World’s Classics Bible -This 1997 paperback, edited by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, packs a world of research and annotation into a hefty brick of a volume, and our editors waste no time in putting translator cards face-up on the table:
Bibles are, by their very nature, partisan. As that plural suggests, there are many bibles, even in English, and each is the product of a particular interest group – whether religious, commercial, or, increasingly nowadays, both. This edition is no exception. The editors of this World’s Classics version have chosen for their text the 1611, King James translation – also more familiarly called ‘the Authorized Version’ – not because of any presumed impartiality, but because historically it has had greater influence on the development of the cultures and literatures of the English-speaking world than any other translation of the Bible.
And this opening-note defense of the source material is also sounded in the last of our stack of Bibles today:
The Penguin Classics Bible – the 2006 version edited by David Norton is so big and beautiful in the elegant Penguin tuxedo and with its durable binding! And Norton is such an indefatigably curious host throughout, asking questions, teaching effortlessly, taking nothing for granted, and starting things off, in the best Penguin Classics tradition (as I praised when it first appeared), with the basics:
The Bible is the world’s most translated book. It exists in more languages than any other book, and sometimes, as in English, it has hundreds of forms within our language. However much its words are revered, in practice we accept that the meaning and content do survive translation. The Bible itself gives us grounds for accepting this position. The New Testament is written in Greek. It usually quotes the Old Testament not from the Hebrew but from the Greek translation that had become current in the third century BCE, the Septuagint, and Jesus’ words are given in Greek, not the Aramaic he actually spoke … How then, can we think of any of the thousands of different bibles as the Bible?
As every one of these editors hastens to make clear, there is a mountain of English-language Bible translations on the market. These four are the merest fraction, although to my mind they represent the best, the four to have if four is all you can have, the perfect inexhaustible reading-matter if, for instance, you find yourself trapped indoors by a “snow hurricane” for the seventh time in 14 days. The relentless burying of the greatest city in the world is a slightly mystifying behavior for an older and presumably wiser Deity to undertake (Vatican II taught us that He is Love, but this February more strongly indicates that He is Snow Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus), but maybe all this Good Book re-reading is a part of some plan …
February 12th, 2015
Our propitiation of Boston’s suddenly-wrathful Deity continues today with yet more Pelican Scripture Commentaries! I recently looked back at the Big Four, the long Gospel commentaries Pelican put out half a century ago, but in the course of nervously plucking them off my snowbound bookshelves, I came across plenty of secondary Pelican commentaries, several of which hold up just as well as their higher-profile brethren.
Take the 1973 volume Ethics and the New Testament by J. L. Houlden, for example. It’s a tightly-focused work about how the basic concepts of right and wrong play themselves out in the New Testament – glancingly in the Gospels themselves, but inevitably, Houlden (who can be just a bit on the wordy side, so brace yourselves) comes back around to St. Paul, who is, as a friend points out, not the foundation of all Christianity but certainly the entire house built on that foundation. Much as I hate giving St. Paul that kind of credit (he’s a fairly repellant figure), I can’t disagree, and Houlden very much agrees, spending a good deal of time sorting out the essence of how Paul himself estimates right and wrong:
The striking thing about Paul’s ethics is the way that he so often and so sharply brought this central conviction about Christ to bear upon the solution of moral problems with which his congregations faced him. In reply to the church at Corinth, he could easily have fallen back upon flat, unreasoned prohibition when called upon to deal with sexual immorality. In fact he appeals straight to the Christian’s intimate association with Christ – which renders such conduct not ‘wrong’ so much as treacherous or adulterous. He enjoins virtue not as inherently commendable but as following from possession of the Spirit. He urges generosity and humility not because they are desirable as virtues but but because they are attributes of Christ in his saving act for men.
Although Ethics and the New Testament is a wide-ranging little work, Houlden is at his most authoritative when discussing Paul, and he comes by that authority honestly: he wrote a book in 1970 called Paul’s Letters from Prison that covers Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians (Houlden’s name is misprinted on the Pelican cover, which had to sting a bit) and that is a much more dedicated attempt to capture what Houlden calls “the magnificent sweep” of Paul’s teaching. Paul’s Letters from Prison is a much deeper book than Ethics and the New Testament, and large chunks of it are also more personal in that peculiar way St. Paul seems to evoke in those who study him closely – perhaps because he himself is such an unabashedly personal writer, an almost unique voice from the ancient world. Certainly the complexity of his writings brings out the best in Houlden:
The strangeness of Paul’s idiom cannot disguise the fact that he is dealing with permanent questions of man’s existence in the world in a way which was not only original but also profound. The rigour with which he refuses all easy remedies for man’s moral ineptitude, the subtlety with which he explores man’s relationship with a righteous God in a sinful world, the richness with which he develops the implications of Christ’s person and role for the peace man longs for – all these features deserve to command respect from Christian and non-Christian alike, quite apart from the magnitude of his historical achievement in the development of the Church. Whatever his own personal attitudes to these matters, a man can find in Paul ample material with which to extend and deepen his consideration of them.
Paul is also the subject of John Ruef’s 1971 entry in the Pelican New Testament Commentaries, Paul’s First Letter to Corinth, which can’t help but feel like a bit of a step down after the sometimes soaring rhetoric of Houlden’s book. Ruef is a solid scholar, and the way he takes his readers through this all-important Epistle virtually word-by-word is an amazing service even today, but the book has just a few too many passages like this one:
Here again we see Paul stressing that the proper Christian profession is not, as the Corinthian Christians would have it, Christ is risen. The proper profession is, Christ died and is risen. But one cannot make this profession without providing the same basis of hope held out for others who have died. The hope is, after all, not a hope simply for individual salvation. This was a common idea among the gentiles, but it was not the way in which the Jews viewed salvation: salvation lay in God’s concern for his people. To belong to the people of God was to share in the hope of the people of God. If one were to affirm this hope for oneself as an individual believer, while denying this hope for members of the community who had died, one would in effect be shattering the unity of the community in this particular respect. And this kind of threat to the unity of the community was something which Paul would not tolerate.
You don’t have to be an Open Letters editor to see how much hot air has been pumped into a passage like that one (a moment’s consideration is enough to see that it could be boiled down to two sentences), but the balance of the book has some fascinating facts and insights about the very beginnings of Christianity, as seen in the microcosm of one its key documents.
And we go from microcosm to macrocosm in G. Ernest Wright and Reginald Fuller’s 1957 volume The Book of the Acts of God, which ranges across the whole of Christianity from its doctrinal roots in the Old Testament to every aspect of its flowering in the New Testament and even a bit beyond. Wright and Fuller seem to delight in asking the big questions and casting all around for their answers; it can be fun to watch:
After all, what is the Bible? Is it simply a series of tales about supernatural doings which only the gullible can accept and then only on ‘faith’? … Is revelation a series of dogma from heaven, or the actions of God which give meaning to history? And if the biblical events that are understood to be the acts of Go are seen to be continuous with and interpreted by events that a historian can study on a ‘secular level’, does this mean that the theological understanding of them is automatically wrong? On earth a meteor is a piece of rock, but does that mean it did not come from the heavens? Behind these queries is the question as to whether the Bible itself has a particular religious point of view that we today do not readily comprehend. What is the relation between fact and faith in the Bible? What are the acts of God?
Of course there were many more volumes than these in the Pelican Scripture Commentaries – these volumes spoke to a more liturgically literate age than our own (I was struck over and over by how often I came across untranslated Latin or Greek, to say nothing of French and German), a coddled age that didn’t have to deal with monster blizzards every week, as penitent Boston now must. The Hub is only predicted to receive a couple of fresh inches of tonight, but the weekend is fixing to inflict yet another round of the Deity’s wrath. St. Paul would have counseled humility – and he’d have been standing by with a shovel.
February 11th, 2015
Our books today are the four hefty volumes that constitute the core of the old Pelican Gospel Commentaries, and we turn to them with a kind of cold-sweat urgency: as the endless snow continues to fall, as the very infrastructure of Boston begins to crumble, Stevereads continues its perhaps-futile bid to appease the peevish Deity by taking these treasured paperbacks off the shelf and admiring them afresh.
As a good friend of mine is fond of repeating, the task of Scriptural interpretation is a deliberately open-ended one, a process each generation must undertake for itself. If that’s true, older guidebooks like these are put in a precarious spot: the only way they can avoid being superseded is by being full-out classics in their own right. And if such a thing is true for these Pelican Gospel Commentaries, all of which were written in the 1960s, how much more dolorously true must it be for, say, the voluminous Gospel commentaries of Erasmus, centuries old and so long out of print? It’s a little depressing, actually: these scholars, inspired by their encounter with these writings that mean more to them than anything, pour out their hearts and the full extent of their learning, only to end up looking antiquated even in their own lifetime.
Fortunately, that good friend of mine is partially wrong, and he’s wrong for the most predictable reason: because he himself is in the business of Scriptural interpretation! An ordinary literate intelligent Christian (settle down now – that’s not the set-up to a joke), wanting to understand the Gospels both as literary and historical documents, still couldn’t do better than to make a study of these four old Pelican volumes.
Of course, such a study will be a bit uneven, not just because scholars are uneven in their training but also because the Gospels themselves are famously uneven. The synoptic Gospels inevitably produce various layers of nervous chatter about sources and derivations, for instance, something the great scholar J. C. Fenton addresses immediately in his 1963 Saint Matthew:
It is usually thought that Mark’s Gospel was written about A. D. 65; and that the author of it was neither one of the apostles nor an eyewitness of the majority of events recorded in his Gospel. Matthew was therefore dependent upon the writing of such a man for the production of his book. What Matthew has done, in fact, is to produce a second and enlarged edition of Mark. Moreover, the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not the corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness. Thus, whereas in Mark’s Gospel we may be only one remove from eyewitnesses, in Matthew’s Gospel we are one remove further still.
And then there’s the varying nature within the synoptic Gospels themselves, which often causes their exegetes to get a bit defensive. This is true in the case of the vagaries of Matthew, as Fenton was hinting, and it’s even more true of the bare-bones flintiness of Mark, a thing clearly on D. E. Nineham’s mind when he was writing his 1963 book on that Gospel:
St. Mark, although, as we have seen, he has his distinctive preoccupations, as compared with the other Evangelists, remains completely anonymous; he makes no attempt to ‘push’ his interpretation explicitly and it has to be discovered by reading carefully between his lines. This was no doubt because his understanding of Christ was for the most part simply that of the Church to which he belonged, and he was not conscious of doing anything more than commit the ‘gospel’ of that Church to writing.
But sometimes, you find just the right scholar matched with just the right book, and that’s always a happy occasion. The stand-out example in this case is G. B. Caird, who, in his 1963 Saint Luke, uses passion and eloquence (and a touch of Sherlock Holmes!) in order to re-align wonderfully all my previous impressions of this Gospel:
The study of the Gospel enables us to describe in some detail the man who wrote it. He was a second-generation Christian who had had ample opportunities of associating with those who had first-hand knowledge of the gospel story. He was an educated man who could adapt his Greek diction to different occasions, writing sometimes formal, classical prose, sometimes a racy narrative style in the vernacular of his own day, and sometimes the semitic ‘Bible Greek’ in which the Septuagint was written. His command of Greek, his constant interest in Gentiles, and his avoidance of matters of purely Jewish interest may be taken as indications that he himself was a Gentile, but he was one of those Gentiles who were deeply versed in the Greek Old Testament and in the ways of the synagogue. He had something of the poet in his make-up and an artist’s ability to depict in vivid pen-portraits the men and women who inhabit his pages. He delighted in marvels and was a little inclined to emphasize the miraculous elements in his story. He was more interested in people than in ideas. He had a lively social conscience and an inexhaustible sympathy for other people’s troubles.
And then there’s the Everest in any Gospel mountain chain: the Gospel of St. John, with its length and flights of fancy and very distinctive (and guiltily enjoyable) excesses, the Gospel of John, the epic of the New Testament, written by a full-out loon and easily capable, even two millennia later, of bringing out the loon in otherwise-sober scholars who study it. John Marsh’s 1968 volume in this series, Saint John, is longer than the others, of course, and it’s absorbingly good throughout, but when it comes to the quasi-philosophical mumbo-jumbo at which John excels, well, Marsh is what we call these days an enabler:
What has John done? Has he really distorted the message of the synoptics for something really different? Not at all. The present writer believes that what he has done is enable the reader of the fourth gospel to move from it back to the synoptics and there to perceive what the synoptic message is. This is done by keeping his readers firmly with the historical Jesus, for it is in him that they can really meet the past, the present and the future. The past means him, that is the real theological justification for typology. If some even in the past, like the exodus from Egypt, throws light (as it does) through the Passover feast on the destiny and death of Christ, it is then seen that as the fulfillment (the achievement once for all history) of what God sought to do in the Passover is at the cross, the cross itself sheds light back to the exodus. What is going on in the exodus helped many to see what was going on on the cross; but once it is seen what is going on in the event of the cross, then it is seen as what is going on all the time. The cross becomes the meaning, the one event of all history.
Although they may seem like fairly staid things to the casual glance in 2015, these Pelican Gospel Commentaries were just shy of incendiary when they first appeared, a fact that each separate author feels obligated to mention in one way or other. They take as their common starting point that the Gospels, whatever else they might be to the thousands of readers who bought these volumes, are ancient documents, vulnerable to deterioration and misinterpretation and the thousand other shocks that texts are heir to. It’s actually a quietly amazing thing, to read these books and realize that scholars might once have been burned alive for writing them.
It’s a sobering little thought, for a city so clearly under Heavenly interdict as Boston is this February. It’ll be a shame to burn these jam-packed little paperbacks for fuel, but with eighty more major snowstorms predicted for the next 17 days, I may not have much of a choice.
February 10th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics are the only ones you can turn to when your city has incurred the wrath of the Almighty, as Boston so clearly has in this apocalyptic February of 2015, which has so far seen just a few inches short of 500 feet of snow. At such times, my book-hunting lapsed Catholic fingers just naturally twitch their way along the bookshelves and stop on atavistic territory – in this case, the 1961 UK-only Penguin Classic of the New English Bible‘s New Testament, released in an affordable mass market paperback in the wake of the notable financial success of the hardcover New English Bible among the general reading populace.
The committee of scholars and translators who undertook the creation of the New English Bible took their task very seriously, as the unsigned Introduction to the this Penguin paperback makes earnestly clear:
No one who has not tried it can know how impossible an art translation is. Only those who have meditated long upon the Greek original are aware of the richness and subtlety of meaning that may lie even within the most apparently simple sentence, or know the despair that attends all efforts to bring it out through the medium of a different language. Yet we may hope that we have been able to convey to our readers something at least of what the New Testament has said to us during these years of work, and trust that under the providence of Almighty God this translation may open the truth of the scriptures to many who have been hindered in their approach to it by barriers of language.
But beyond the circumspection (there were living, working New Testament scholars in 1961 who were driven to transports of livid rage by the above paragraph, though you’d hardly guess it now that all the echoes have died away completely) and the sober sense of purpose, they worked some genuine wonders; it’s always a treat for me to be reminded of just how good and new the New English Bible is. It takes nothing for granted in the courses of its rhetoric; it holds up every familiar passage into bright forensic light, dismantles it, then re-assembles it according to best translation practices rather than according to long liturgical tradition. It can make for genuinely page-turning reading.
It’s true in the Gospels, of course, but in my opinion it’s even more true in the Acts and especially the Epistles, where there’s far more of a narrative voice to capture, and where the footprints of tradition aren’t quite so deep. And nowhere is this effect more pronounced than in the greatest Epistle of them all, Hebrews, in so many ways the unknown heart of the New Testament, with its typically Pauline (though exigetical scamps say he didn’t write it) emphasis on the immediate doing of the new covenant:
So now, my friends, the blood of Jesus makes us free to enter boldly into the sanctuary of the new, living way which he has opened for us through the curtain, the way of his flesh. We have, moreover, a great priest set over the household of God; so let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and full assurance of faith, our guilty hearts sprinkled clean, our bodies washed with pure water. Let us be firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope, for the Giver of the promise may be trusted. We ought to see how each of us may best arouse others to love and active goodness, not staying away from our meetings, as some doe, but rather encouraging one another, all the more because you see the Day is drawing near.
Simply in terms of translation, I have my little doubts about that lovely ‘hearts sprinkled clean’ – but I’m hardly in a position to quibble, especially with Boston’s own Day so obviously drawing near. And if we meet our snowy Creator with Penguin Classics in our hands, shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
February 8th, 2015