A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7

 

The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”

A Visit to the Neighbour Centre

A few weeks ago with homelessness on my mind I took a few minutes to drop in on the Neighbour Centre, another great Edmonton thing.  I’d been meaning for some time to visit this rare resource for “street people” on the south side of the River.  The visit was a fine and moving experience.

As one o’clock opening time approached about a dozen people gathered at the door, most laughing and smiling, all apparently familiar with each other.  I hung back, feeling myself to be an outsider here.

Finally the front door of the little storefront across 104 Street from Strathcona High School opened, but it wasn’t quite time to go in.  I watched as a mysterious lottery took place. A number, but not all of the gathered, called out to have their names put into a hat.  Four names were drawn and then the doors opened and all filed inside, I at the end of the line.

Unlike many inner city “missions” the world over, the Neighbour Centre doesn’t require that a meal be purchased with a bowed head or an open ear for a prayer or a sermon.  The proceedings began with what seemed a completely voluntary opportunity for individuals to publicly reflect positively on themselves.  Staff, volunteers, and Neighbours all took a moment to either pass or to tell the group what they thought of themselves when they were at their best, a pretty positive exercise.

After this brief self-affirmation, the purpose of the mysterious lottery became clear: four of the Neighbours appeared in yellow safety vests, “The Neighbour Centre” printed on the backs, equipped for their afternoon cleaning litter from the sidewalks of Old Strathcona.  For their work, they would be paid an hourly wage in cash. The fact that a lottery must be held for these jobs puts the lie to the idea that the “homeless” are not willing to work.

The Neighbours now disperssed through the building, some to the back to the showers, some straight to the fresh food in the “kitchen”.  The Neighbour Centre does not have a full kitchen, making to with microwaves and rice cookers and a healthy offering of fresh fruit and vegetables.

As I chatted and learned about some of the philosophy of the Centre, I saw neighbours offer to wash up the dishes. There is little distinction here; everyone pitches in. The Neighbour Centre’s focus is on helping Neighbours become actual neighbours, to help them empower themselves to better their own circumstances. It’s a hackneyed pharse, but the Neighbour Centre doesn’t offer hand outs. It offers hands up.

One particularly exciting program the Neighbour Centre organizes is the Thursday night Dinner Club at the Strathcona Baptist Church.  On these evenings about twenty Neighbours — staff, volunteers, and those who might be called “clients” by other agencies — get together to prepare and share their dinner, side by side. This is not a charity providing “services”, rather, here are neighbours serving each other and building a true community, nurturing individual growth.

Recently the Neighbour Centre has amalgamated with another great Edmonton thing, the Mustard Seed.  This will hopefully bring administrative efficiencies while not undermining either organization’s philosophy or strenghths.  Together with Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS), the Neighbour Centre is a rare bright light for our most disadvantaged neighbours on the south side of Edmonton. Each of us needs to try to be such a light for our neighbours. All of our neighbours.

 

Until the fine future day the Neighbour Centre is no longer needed, I hope all shoppers on Whyte Avenue, when they pass a worker in one of those yellow safety vests, will share a smile and a “Thank you, neighbour!” and maybe a conversation and some laughter.  As I did a few days ago with this fellow:

I’ve got a bone to pick with Edmonton’s Weed Inspectors

I have a bunch of very nice neighbours. One in particular is devoted to her yard and her flower beds, which she keeps in immaculate condition. Without knowing the term, she practices Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is pretty much the accepted set of practices for the management of weeds and insect pests in Alberta. It is what the Province expects to be understood and practiced by successful applicants for a Pesticide Application Certificate (of which I am a[n expired] holder). Basically, IPM strives to keep pests (and weeds) below a certain, manageable threshold, as eradication is virtually impossible even with massive use of chemical pesticides (many seeds hang around for years or even decades in the soil before germinating).

Lately my neighbour has been coming to me with plants she finds in her yard asking me what they are, which is flattering to me, but she’s at her wit’s end! A City of Edmonton weed inspector has been, to use a harsh word, harassing her about the state of her yard. Like every yard in Strathcona, her yard has some creeping bellflower, which, unlike most homeowners in Strathcona, my neighbour pulls out obsessively. She’s been cited by this weed inspector for rampant perennial sow thistle. She has none in her yard and the weed inspector later admitted that he “just wrote that on the citation” although he knew there was none in her yard.

Today I inspected her yard quite closely and found absolutely no uncontrolled noxious weed infestations. And yet my neighbour has had three letters from this weed inspector.

To add insult to the infliction of unnecessary anxiety, at least six front yards on my neighbour’s block have been unmowed all summer and are absolutely overrun with uncontrolled perennial sow thistle and/or Canada thistle and/or creeping bell flower with no apparent repercussions for the owners of those properties.

What is going on here? Does this weed inspector have a vendetta against my neighbour? Do the inspectors only come out of their offices if there is a complaint? If the latter, does some other anonymous neighbour have some sort of sick vendetta against my neighbour with the immaculate garden? Even if the inspector is only responding to vexatious complaints, do inspectors not have the training to recognize frivolous complaints and the authority to summarily dismiss such complaints? And do they not have the authority to act on seriously and objectively out of control noxious weed beds when such are right before their eyes?

I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I get any sort of answer. In the meantime, I’ll happily continue to advise my neighbour with the immaculate yard – and all my neighbours — about noxious weed identification and Integrated Pest Management.

I wish City of Edmonton weed inspectors would do the same.

P.S.

And we should discuss the several weeks this summer when the uncontrolled pigweed and other noxious weeds on the City-owned medians on Whyte Avenue between 96th Street and 99th Street grew so tall that it became a traffic hazard, completely blocking visibility for motorists making left turns onto Whyte Avenue from either Strathcona or Ritchie. Where were the weed inspectors when uncontrolled noxious weeds on City land endangered the lives of citizens?

Update, September 6, 2016: This morning, the first business day afyer I posted the above, I was contacted by a City of Edmonton representative (by Twitter direct messaging) asking for my neighbour’s location, saying they wanted to look into this further. 

Time will tell.


Yes, In My Back Yard. Please

A good friend of mine recently moved from a rented basement apartment on the southern edge of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood to a rental high-rise apartment on the northern edge of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood. Her former home was virtually across the street from the McCauley neighbourhood, which is the hub of Edmonton’s social housing and services for Edmonton’s homeless and marginalized citizens. Her new neighbourhood — my neighbourhood for three decades — has been voted Edmonton’s “Best Neighbourhood” for a number of years.  For some time now, however, I have been noticing a severe gap in Strathcona’s social fabric, a gap highlighted recently by an unexpectedly locked door.

For those who don’t know Edmonton, one of the most obvious things about the place is that there is a huge forest with a river running through it stretching from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the City. This mega-central park (twenty-something times the size of that famous park in NYC) marks the edge of Downtown on the north side of the River and the edge of Old Strathcona on the south side of the River.  McCauley is northeast of Downtown. Most of the services for homeless and marginalized people are north of the River. Of course, as much as some more privileged might like it to be so, the marginalized do not confine themselves to a ghetto designated for them.

Here in my little neighbourhood there are a number of individuals I’ve come to know over the years – “gleaners” I sometimes call them – who make their weekly rounds collecting bottles and cans to augment whatever meager income they may have from other sources. In particular I’ve come to know Vivian and her dog Chewy. Often Vivian sits on one of the benches I’ve put in the alley behind my home as resting places for any neighbours who may need a break. Vivian often gives Chewy a drink of water and rests there. Vivian’s been having some health issues so the shady resting spot is important.  On Saturday morning Vivian is usually selling Our Voice at the Farmers’ Market. She is one of my neighbours although I’m not exactly sure where she lives.

This summer there has been a noticeable increase in the number of new faces I see amongst the “gleaners” in my neighbourhood. I expect some of these new faces are marginalized people displaced by the Fort McMurray wildfire and members of the McMurray Precariate pushed to the margin by that fire. But many seem to be those displaced by the new Downtown Arena. And there will be more.  A few days ago a couple of new faces sat down on the sidewalk out in front of my place.  It was a hot day. They heard me puttering about with my plants and one called over to ask if I minded if they sat there for a bit. I joined them for a chat and told them that as long as they didn’t leave a mess or burn down anyone’s house, of course I didn’t mind if they sat there. We talked a bit and then they offered me “a tip”: “the K&K Foodliner over on Whyte Ave is having a barbecue of bratwurst and stuff in their parking lot and for about three bucks you can get a nice bratwurst on a bun and a drink.” They were just waiting for the grill to get nice and greasy (and having a beer on the sidewalk) before going to get some good, cheap food. A while later they headed off to the K&K. They didn’t leave a mess. They only left the memory of a conversation and a few laughs.

Over the years I’ve been happy to make many memories of conversations and laughs with neighbours on the street. I strongly believe that the vast majority of people try to live in peace and without malice. And I know for a certainty a mean spirit will be found in a house just as often as on the street.

Until a few years ago when the Neighbour Centre opened on 104th Street, my little set of benches was one of the few places on the Southside that Vivian and Chewy and other tired neighbours could be sure of a welcome.  Certainly the Youth Emergency Shelter (officially Youth Empowerment & Support Services) on the other side of the Mill Creek Ravine – despite resistance from the “community” – has become an accepted institution, but until the Neighbour Centre opened as a day shelter and warm up space in the winter, there was no refuge on my side of the river for marginalized adults — and there still is no overnight shelter.  I fear that after the Terwillegar embarrassment, it will be a long time before any church or charitable organization alone floats the idea.

The unexpectedly locked door I mentioned, however, has spurred me to say to anyone who will hear “An overnight homeless shelter is needed in Strathcona, in the best neighbourhood in the city, in my neighbourhood, as soon as possible.”  I already have a little place of refuge literally in my back yard.

I don’t say NIMBY, I say YIMBY.

My friend and I returned to her new building one evening shortly after eight and found the outside door to the lobby locked.  Fortunately we noticed the keycard reader quite far from the door and were able to open this never-before-locked entrance. We dismissed the situation uncomfortably as a mixup, but later learned that the building’s new policy was to lock the outer door at eight every evening “due to the increasing number of homeless people displaced by the Downtown Arena” who were trying to find shelter in the outer lobby.

So, now, when visitors arrive after eight, they have to phone or text the resident who must then come down to the lobby and open the door for the visitor. No longer can a visitor enter the outer lobby, buzz the apartment number, and be buzzed in remotely. Imagine a get-together of six or eight guests, each arriving separately. Down and up a dozen stories to open the door for each arrival. Better to go down once and stick a block in the outer door. Or even better ask a homeless guy to act as outer-doorman and slip him a twenty in the morning.

This silliness is happening, not because homeless people seek shelter, but because the Arena has displaced people to a neighbourhood lacking adequate infrastructure for marginalized citizens, infrastructure which is decades overdue.

Personally, I think the building management’s solution to the “problem” of people looking for a dry place to spend the night is pretty much unworkable and won’t last more than a few weeks. The real solution will be for the City, churches, charities, and the wider community to come together and provide support to our fellow citizens.  Yes, the Mayor and Council are determined to End Homelessness by 2019 or something but we have neighbours right now, today, who need a safe, dry, warm place to go at night. The City should take the lead in bringing us all together to make an overnight shelter on the south side of the River, in my neighbourhood, a reality.

Soon.

 

The Freewill Players’ Summer of Love

I make no bones about it: I love seeing Shakespeare outside. For me, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is the peak of Edmonton’s rich and varied Festival Season (which season really lasts year round).  Always interesting, always fresh, always squirrel-challenged, the Freewill Players have, in my experience, always made the plays accessible and challenging to modern audiences without compromising the poetry and drama of Old Bill’s work.  A group of actors simply sitting in the Heritage Amphitheatre competently reading the plays aloud would be joy enough. But the Freewill Players consistently dig deep, reach high, and always pull out a sack of gems and a constellation of stars to toss to their happy audiences.

This year the Freewill Players have gone retro, which may seem an odd thing to say about the production of a couple of four-hundred year-old plays.  Billing it a “Summer of Love”, the promotional materials and merchandise for Freewill’s productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet are all a clear reference to the 1960s graphic design style of Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann’s work on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost is marked by a London-style street sign reading “Academe Road”, a riff on Abbey Road. While the production of Romeo and Juliet is a little more traditional, apparently set pretty much in a timelessly Elizabethan Verona, Love’s Labour Lost‘ design and attitude is all the 60s of the Beatles, a bit of the Monkees, and a dash of Laugh-in.

And it works.

Romeo and Juliet has been shortened (as has Love’s Labour’s Lost) with careful judgement to fit the time constraints of Hawrelak Park’s 11 pm closing, but the result is not bad. The action moves quickly and falls nicely into two contrasting acts.  The first half is all bawdy and joyous boyish and girlish exploration and risk taking while in the second half “All,” as Capulet says, “is Death’s”.

Hunter Cardinal and (overachieving) Cayley Thomas make a charming and anxiously hormonal Romeo and Juliet. Jesse Gervais is finely eccentric and fascinatingly varied in the challenging roll of Mercutio, flitting between manly-man and mincingly gay three times per line. Louise Lambert nicely reprises her Nurse roll from Tom Wood’s Citadel production a few years ago, and Sheldon Elter as Benvolio turns in his usual sterling performance.  Belinda Cornish does a nice job of demonstrating that the conjugal love she promises Juliet will see blossom with Paris hasn’t quite fallen on rich soil in her own case.

A theme emphasized in both plays this year — and it is a theme well worth emphasizing — is the strength of the women, most concretely illustrated by casting Mary Hulbert as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, politically the most powerful character in Romeo and Juliet. But also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which flirts at the beginning with being a new Beatles film with the four mop-top lads from Navarre, it is the women who dominate. In this case the eight principals, the King of Navarre (Nathan Cuckow) and his three lords (Gervais, Cardinal, and Neil Kuefler) and the Princess of France (Kristi Hansen) and her three ladies (Thomas, Cornish, and Lambert), are of roughly equal socio-political station, but it is the women who steer the men, it is the women who control the men, and, in the end, it is the women who impose the final resolution on the men.

As Romeo and Juliet do in their play, the men of Love’s Labour’s Lost move with haste and foolishness. Fortunately the result for them is not lethal: the women of France impose just a third of the original vow of celibacy while Romeo and Juliet’s crossed-stars (and parental feud) imposes death.

Freewill’s Summer of Love may seem to promise a whole lot of joy, and it delivers, but, walking out of the big tent into the wonderful park in the heart of Edmonton, it’s clear that the Players have seen themselves – and shown to us – the bitter with the sweet. Navarre and Verona are in a world with consequences. Yes, we laugh, we party, we huff some helium, and we love in Navarre and Verona, but we also fight, and wait, and hunger, and die. For all their Yellow Submarines and Queen Mabs, for all their inaccessible references and high poetry, for all their Worthies (with feet of clay), Romeo, Juliet, the King, the Princess and all the lords, ladies, merchants, and commoners are here.

They are us.

In a Summer of Love.

 

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s Summer of Love continues in the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 17, 2016.

 

Seventy of My Favourite Books and Why You Shouldn’t Read Them

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The Internet seems cluttered with lists of books. Prescriptive lists of books. Thirty books every man should read by such and such an age. The one hundred best books ever. Twenty-seven must-read books about Medieval tapestries. Lists of various celebrities’ favourite books.

I hate those lists. To me “You should read” is a complete sentence and the only and most detailed imperative about reading necessary in polite society. No object is needed there. As soon as “this” or a book title is added, I turn off. One’s reading history is intensely personal. If you consider “you should read this because it had an important effect on me” to be a worthwhile recommendation, then aren’t you conforming more than a little? Aren’t you thinking at some level “I want to be just a little like the person recommending the book, I want to feel what they felt, I want to have their shape”?

I have been shaped by the thousands and thousands of things I have read over the last half century. You have been shaped by the things you have read. I have no interest in giving you a list of the books that have formed me and saying “these are Must-Read books!” any more than I have an interest in conforming to some Internet dweeb’s idea of the Thirty Books that Make a Real Man. I find book clubs a sort of interruption in my reading journey. I don’t generally want my reading choices made by others. I want my past and present reading to lead organically to my future reading. I don’t want a visitor from Porlock to interrupt my blissful journey to Xanadu.

I wish everyone felt that way.

As an exercise, perhaps in absurdity, and as a sort of illustration, I’ve made an annotated list of some of my favourite books. These are not Must-Read books. Some are not great books or maybe even good books. Most people would find many of them dull and in a few cases, completely unreadable. A good number are in “dead” languages. But they are books that helped make me the person I am today.

Please, if you take anything from this list, be inspired to follow your own unique, quirky, unashamedly self-guided trajectory through the magnificent, infinite Library of Human Feeling and Knowledge.

I have tried to limit myself to one book per author, but have not always succeeded. If I don’t mention a translator of some non-English books it’s because I can manage that language, often to my surprise. If I may impolitely suggest, the first duty of a serious reader is to learn another language. Regularly and repeatedly.

The List, in no particular order

1. Challenge of the Stars, Patrick Moore and David Hardy

Hardy’s space art in this book was my first inspiration to pick up a brush and a tube of paint. Perhaps enough said.

2. Intelligent Life in the Universe, I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan. Russian translation by Paula Fern.

A book by Carl Sagan had to be on this list, and this odd Cold War collaboration had to be the one. This book revealed to me when I was about thirteen years old the beauty and wonder of the poetry of Yeats. And the book is also full of all sorts of beautiful and wondrous scientific space stuff!

3. The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski

I have written at length about Bronowski’s masterpiece elsewhere, so, a link.

4. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Tolkien/Gordon edition.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the finest poem of winter in English, although its English is awfully difficult for most modern readers. Although available in many translations, nothing compares to the real thing.

5. The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a magnificent cross section of the types and qualities of poetry produced in the Old English period. The short poem modernly titled “The Wanderer” is recognized as one of the great achievements of World Literature, and the book is packed with gems both long and short, enough verse riddles to keep Bilbo and Gollum guessing for days, and, perhaps my favourite, a beautiful, melancholy, fragmented piece of poetry modernly titled “The Ruin”.

6. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is the single book that led me directly to study Old English poetry. And, the sustained epic vision in Tolkien’s works was such a refreshing tonic to C. S. Lewis’ annoying Narnia books!

7. The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes

The Road to Xanadu is a breathtaking piece of scholarship. In meticulous detail, Lowes researches and reconstructs Coleridge’s reading that was distilled into “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Lowes sources everything in the poems, down to individual words, exhibiting the poet as a great synthesizer, an arithmetician creating magical new and greater sums from startlingly disparate parts. A simply remarkable and artful piece of scholarship.

8. The Odyssey, Homer, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation

The Odyssey is so rich, and so earthy, and so totally human. Every reading is exhilarating.

9. Aeneidos, Liber Sextus, Virgil, edited by R. G. Austin

This favourite is actually a favourite physical object, my own copy of Austin’s edition of Book Six of the Aeneid. This is the book in which I first read epic poetry in Latin. This is the book in which I discovered Cumae and Lake Avernus, and the Golden Bough and the gates of horn and ivory. This is the book which caused me to shout “Cumae!” from the back of the van on the Italian highway when the Director asked “We’ve a free weekend coming up. Does anyone have anywhere they’d particularly like to see?” This book was absolutely vital in the making of present day me, but it would be absurd for me to say this is a Must-Read book for anyone other than 1981 me.

10. History of the Conquest of Mexico, William H. Prescott

Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico is a tour de force of historiography (as is his History of the Conquest of Peru). More than a century old, it remains a wonderful and eye-openingly informative understanding of the events that led to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire under the assault of the well-armed infantry of rebellious vassal city-states and a rag-tag few dozen vicious foreigners, veterans of the generations-long crusade against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula.

11. Incidents of Travel in Central America, John Lloyd Stephens

Together with Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, this is an exciting travelogue of the first English-speaking traveller (with literary ability) to visit the ruins of Classic Maya cities. Catherwood’s illustrations are somewhat fanciful, but are sometimes remarkable in their reproduction of Maya inscriptions, which were unreadable at the time. When driving through Chiapas in the early 1990’s I often thought of Stephens’ writings and of Catherwood’s illustrations.

12. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade, translated by Willard R. Trask

Eliade’s writings on the History of Religions influenced my thoughts immensely when I was younger. While I’ve come to realize that Eliade was a “creative” scholar and to be taken with a large grain of salt, I still find his ideas and inferences to be thought-provoking.

13. Guns, Germs, & Steel, Jared Diamond

A great popular synthesis of modern understandings of what, largely geographic, circumstances led to the European colonial dominance over Africa and the Americas.

14. Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter

Goedel, Escher, Bach is a simply exquisite piece of writing. I don’t know what more to write.

Hofstadter’s later book, Le ton bon de Marot, largely about translation and its challenges, is also a favourite of mine.

15. Paradise Lost, John Milton

Epic. In English. What’s not to like?

16. The Tempest, William Shakespeare

It might seem like a hard prospect, choosing a single favorite Shakespeare play, but really, it’s not for me. The Tempest is a tireless piece, whether it’s on stage at Freewill or in Christopher Plummer’s stunning Stratford performance, or Julie Taymor’s film with Helen Mirren, or Paul Mazursky’s brilliant modern adaptation with John Cassavetes. Simply tireless and of unplumbable depth. The Tempest is a play to be enjoyed and explored for a lifetime.

17. The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard

The Real Thing is so full of great Stoppard lines! Again, a play I never tire of.

18. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon

Another tour de force of Historiography. And Gibbon is a brilliant prose stylist.

19. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Mars the way it was supposed to be. Dying Martian civilization, square-jawed colonists from Earth, breathable atmosphere, canals. Science Fiction that concentrates on the Fiction.

20. Dune, Frank Herbert

The first book in this never-ending series is the best. Always re-readable.

21. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

Peake, painter and poet as well as novelist, is a startling writer. His prose is poetry and intensely visual. The writing in Titus Groan is so beautiful that it’s a pure joy to read, however weird the characters, setting, and plot. Peake’s description early in the book of the Grey Scrubbers who clean the Great Kitchen of Castle Ghormenghast is beautiful, melancholy and brain-etching.

22. The Monk, Matthew Lewis

Brilliant Gothic terror! The Monk is simply gripping.

23. The Golem, Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell

Like The Monk, The Golem is a brilliant piece of fright writing, but more understated than The Monk. The Golem is one of the few books that has actually sent a shiver down my spine.

24. A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes

A children’s book for not faint-at-heart children. Real pirates, real kidnapping, real danger, and really strong drink! And real fun!

25. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The moment when Marlow says “And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth” forever changes one’s perspective on so many things.

26. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett

Not so much a favourite because it changed my opinion on anything, but that Dennett articulates things so well.

27. On The Origin Of Species, Charles Darwin

The first edition of On The Origin Of Species is a wonderful piece of clarity and all the exposition needed of what really is a totally obvious thing: descent with variation together with variable reproductive success inevitably produces evolution.

28. Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul

Saul exposes our contemporary society as a system run by management consultants for whom management theory is everything and humanity is irrelevant. A terrifying dystopia we’ve come to accept unquestioningly.

29. Project Apollo: Mission to the Moon, Charles Coombs

This is the first library book that I wanted to own a copy of. My father generously ordered it from some bookstore in Downtown Sudbury, Ontario when I was about nine years old. My first Space Book.

30. The Gilgamesh Trilogy, Ludmilla Zeman

Ludmilla Zeman’s trilogy is simply beautiful. Zeman’s illustrations of her retelling for children of the Gilgamesh Epic are wonderfully evocative of a mythic time of great cities in a mysterious wilderness world.

31. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

One of the funniest novels ever written.

32. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne

Even funnier than Tom Jones. And daringly experimental.

33. The Once and Future King, T. H. White

Here is where I first experienced the Arthurian tales. And White’s novel is grand and eccentric. When I read it as a boy it was a wonderful challenge and was so when I read it again as an adult.

34. English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child, editor

The Child Ballads are a tremendous archive of folk song material collected from throughout England and Scotland in the 19th century while the traditions were still fully alive. Child presents multiple variants of most of the ballads as well as the vast scholarly apparatus so loved by the Victorians and me.

35. The Oresteia, Aeschylus, translated by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene

The raw, fundament of the Western dramatic tradition. Primal and stirring.

36. The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street, Trevanian

I simply love the novels of Trevanian, one of the most overlooked English language novelists. A brilliant and versatile writer, in his final (maybe) novel, he lovingly recreates his childhood in Albany in the 1930s. Lovely, loving, sad, sweet, sunlit and hilarious.

37. Theogony, Hesiod, Richmond Lattimore’s translation

The raw beginnings of Western Literature, a rustic farmer on a mountainside calling on the Muses of true lies to tell about the still-close primeval world of the gods and goddesses.

38. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. N. Robinson

Chaucer’s voice is a joy, telling of very real and happily ordinary human beings finding laughter and even bliss in the gritty, smelly world of Medieval Europe. Chaucer’s English is fresh and his verse sings. It is impossible to tire of Chaucer.

39. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Sure Steinbeck writes with a sledgehammer, but it’s a beautifully mythic sledgehammer and in The Grapes of Wrath it hammers out social(ist) justice and hope with a vengeance.

40. The Latin translations of Rolfe Humphries

Rolfe Humphries’ translation of The Metamorphoses was my first meeting with Ovid, and, despite the severe look of Humphries in the author photo on the back, Rolfe was certainly a playful enough fellow to make over Ovid (and Martial and Juvenal and Virgil and Lucretius) into English verse, and poet enough to make that verse poetry. Almost never slavishly literal, Humphries’ translations are most often audacious recreations, what the old poets might have written if they’d been writing in America in the ’50s.

41. The Poems, Catullus, edited by Kenneth Quinn

Catullus is a treasure, never more so than when he’s translating Sappho. I got this book in the summer of ’83, the summer I was digging Roman ruins, and I translated into English some of Catullus’ Latin translations of Sappho’s Greek.

42. The Passionate Friends or Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, H. G. Wells

I’m not sure that I really have a favourite Wells book. But The Passionate Friends is up there because of the moment in my life that I read it and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is attractive because it is a very odd novel. Of course, Wells was always reinventing himself. It’s sad that he is now remembered mainly for his youthful Science Fiction novels and not for his more mature work in a multitude of genres.

43. Selections from Five Roman Poets

This little kind of Victorian-looking school text was were I first read truly connected Latin poetry, so, how could it help be a favourite?

44. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, 15th edition

And here is were I first read Old English. I well remember getting my texts in the summer before my sophomore year and thinking “I’ll get a head start!” I opened up Sweet’s to the first selection and, after a vast meadow of introductory matter in fine print, I saw this: “Her Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rices ond Westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum daedum, buton Hamtunscire” and I thought “what have I gotten myself into?”

45. Wagner’s Ring, Robert Donington

I am not a musician, but Donington’s book made me feel like I deeply understood Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and that was quite a feeling.

46. Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi Straus

Isn’t it odd that a book by astrophysicists led me to the poetry of Yeats and a book by a French anthropologist led my to my almost religious reading of Scientific American from cover to cover each month? Strange, but true.

47. American Empire and the Fourth World, Anthony J. Hall

This is just a big, rich, eye-opening scholarly book about the history and future of the Americas.

48. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon

This biography of the great Warren Zevon is fascinating. Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife, as well as writing a personal account of her late-husband’s life, managed to draw together reminiscences of those who knew him, both in the music industry and outside. The picture that emerges is of a brilliant musician and song-writer who had mental health issues, huge personality flaws, and problems with addiction, but remains lovable despite the warts and clay feet.

49. The Jeeves Books, P. G. Wodehouse

How could Wodehouse not be here?

50. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould

Gould’s books always interested me. Wonderful Life opened my eyes to the idea that evolution is massively contingent on circumstance, and that rewinding the tape of life and letting it play again would not necessarily end with me sitting at my little computer listening to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Wonderful Life is a bit of an explanation mark to follow Darwin’s great theory: Evolution Is Aimless!

52. The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies

This was my first encounter with Robertson Davies. The garlic press has stuck with me forever.

53. Norstrillia, Cordwainer Smith

The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith was a revelation to me as a teen. His world was so richly foreign compared to the stuff I’d been reading by Asimov and Clarke and Larry Niven. This was a Science Fiction growing in soil that was not Anglo-American, and it was wonderful.

54. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Frankenstein and Dracula first came to me as a pair of paperbacks bought in Hudson’s department store in Detroit when I was not much more than ten. . . .

55. Dracula, Bram Stoker

. . . Dracula and Frankenstein will always stand together in my mind.

56. Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein

Heinlein is a hard one to call a favourite as he writes uncomfortable and unfashionable things about pedophilic incest and economic and social systems easily mistaken for fascism (it’s actually Social Credit he’s talking about). But Heinlein has to be on this list because I’ve spent so much damn time reading (almost) everything he’s written.

57. If on a winter night a traveller, Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

A fascinating experimental novel.

58. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I just really loved this book when I read it, although the age difference between the lovers at times in the novel was thought provoking and discomfiting.

59. Maya Cosmos, David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker

I had to but a Linda Schele book on the list because she was in the thick of the breakthroughs in decipherment of Maya glyphs, a subject fascinating to me from childhood.

56. Backlash, Susan Faludi

A sad prediction of what was just beginning at the time Faludi wrote, the conservative backlash against the advances made by feminists up to the eighties. I’m not sure that the backlash has been as successful as she dreaded, but certainly we still aren’t in the non-sexist world I had hoped we would have built by now.

57. The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf

Not so much an eye-opener for me, but definitely a confirmation of what my open eyes were seeing.

58. The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginsberg, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi

I might have chosen Ginsberg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, but The Cheese and the Worms was the first Ginsberg book I read, so let’s go with it. Ginsberg does this fascinating historiography by deeply examining a lives and thoughts of social outliers rather than of the traditional subjects of history, kings and generals. Marvelous stuff.

59. The Divine Comedy, Dante, translated by John Ciardi (for the felicity of the English) or by Charles S. Singleton (for the facing Italian)

No explanation should be needed.

60. Cantos, Ezra Pound

Pound’s Cantos had hung over me for decades since I read his translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” (the subject of my first academic publication). Finally I knuckled down and read the thing, mostly on a cruise ship off the coast of B. C. and Alaska, and it just felt good to finally know it.

61. Love Poems, Pablo Neruda

Everybody seems to rave about Neruda and I thought “Okay. Better read the fellow and see what the fuss is about. I found this pretty little volume with the Spanish on the left and English translation facing and soon realized I was reading the whole thing in Spanish, not realizing it had somehow become one of my languages. Neruda’s poetry is crushingly beautiful and earthy and beautifully simple and earthy. Just wonderful.

62. Collected Poems, Irving Layton

Speaking of earthy poetry. Layton’s is a perfect example of what Sir Maurice Bowra described as Prophetic Poetry. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, long after I first made the link between Layton’s poetry and Bowra’s lecture on Prophetic Poetry, I heard an old recording on CBC radio of Layton describing himself as a Prophet, and I did a little fist bump for myself.

63. The Nature of Paleolithic Art, R. Dale Guthrie

Not a well-known volume and probably not a well-accepted one, but I found Guthrie’s hypothesis about who actually made most European cave art (paleolithic teenage boys) to be compelling and his tentative first investigations (measuring the hands of people he knew) suggestive if not conclusive.

64. The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

In The Cyberiad, Lem anticipates so many of the issues being faced by Artificial Intelligence researchers it is remarkable. My reading of The Cyberiad in the late Seventies informed my understanding of so much of Star Trek: The Next Generation, of my readings of Hofstadter and Dennett (obviously), of my relationship to computer games, and of a particular philosophy course I took in the late eighties. The Cyberiad is pretty much constantly hovering in a corner of my waking mind.

65. The MLA Handbook, Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert

This little book helped me survive the typing (yes, on a typewriter) of my Master’s thesis and of the manuscripts of all of my academic publications. Somewhat important.

66. A Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, Casey Miller and Kate Swift

And this book helped me learn that non-sexist writing is more creative and more intelligent than just plugging in the status quo. A marvelous book that should be more widely available and more widely referenced.

67. Lyrical Ballads, 1798 Edition, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This little book contains so much that is so great, not least Wordsworth’s introduction. I treasure my copy.

68. Faust, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. Walter Kaufman’s translation for the free flow and facing German, Stuart Atkins’ translation for rigid accuracy and completeness.

Goethe’s Faust is the rich and fertile soil on which so much of later literature grows. I just finished reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and, as much as everyone says an understanding of Stalinist history is what is needed to fully understand that book, I can’t imagine reading it without some familiarity with Faust.

69. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke

So much more sensible and rational and, dare I say, Enlightened, than Tom Paine’s emotional defense of the Revolution in Rights of Man.

70. The Bible, including The Apocrypha, King James Version, preferably.

Okay, here’s the exception that proves the rule: This is a Must-Read book. If you haven’t read The Bible, you simply cannot fully understand Western Literature composed on a date with an A.D. or a C. E. after the year. This is not a religious opinion. The Bible is one of the foundational pieces of Western Literature. That is all.

There.

Some of my favourite books.

Now go out and create your own list, and your own individual, unique self.

It’s All Greek To Me

image

The other day an interesting blog post about astronomical information in a lovely piece by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho came up in my twitter feed. After reading the translations in that post, I said to a friend, “I really should sit down and learn Greek so I can really read Sappho’s poetry. Catullus is at his best when he’s translating her.”  The next morning I sat down for a few hours with my old copy of C. A. E. Luschnig’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek, a long-ago gift from a friend who felt “Old Norse will have to wait!” as she wrote inside the cover.  I don’t think I’ve learned Old Norse yet.

That afternoon I ran to The Edmonton Bookstore, one of a few fine second-hand booksellers in town, hoping that in their collection of Loeb Classical Library books there would be a copy of Sappho’s poems. Sure I’d be able to find texts online, but a real book is always better.  Fortunately, there was one copy of Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus on the shelf for me to grab and clutch to my book-loving heart.

In the evening I relaxed with my old Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon and the text of Sappho’s poem:

Δέδυκε μὲνἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

 

With an ease and rapidity which startled me, I had a scribbled (in green ink) English version of the beautiful poem in front of me:
image

 

More clearly:

Together the Moon and Pleiades
have set. It’s midnight now.
The hours in bunches run away.
But I lie down alone.

I feel satisfied that the grouped, companionable departures of the heavenly bodies and of the hours contrasting Sappho’s lonely solitude have been captured in my translation.  I am not, however, satisfied with the translation of Δέδυκε, with its connotations of dedication to the gods, by the colourless “have set.” But, considering that just twelve hours before I was under the impression that I knew little Greek, I’m feeling pretty good!

I wonder now whether I actually do know Old Norse.