Bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn: Cowardice does what Aunt Sally could not

bowdlerize
to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar; to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. An eponymous word referring to Thomas Bowdler, publisher in 1818 of
The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. [More on this helpful fellow in the notes at the end of the post.]

Huckleberry-Finn-cover painting.jpg

[Cover painting from the HarperFestival 2005 edition of Huckleberry Finn.]

There has been a great deal of commentary this past week about NewSouth Books‘ plan to publish an edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all the instances of nigger are replaced with slave (and Injun with Indian). It’s the work of Professor Alan Gribben at Auburn University, who says that “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” It’s not just some public school teachers motivating Gribben; he too shies at the word in the classroom: ”I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” he said. ”And I don’t think I’m alone… I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.”

What betrayal of a writer can be worse, than to change his words? And not just any words, but one particular word that occurs 219 times in Huckleberry Finn and is central to the book’s meaning. Twain shows Huckleberry Finn as an ignorant boy, a product of his time and place without pretense. He, and the other characters, speak as people of their age and place in life would have spoken; in fact, the second of Twain’s two short prefatory admonitions deals with speech quite firmly:

EXPLANATORY

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro
dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the
ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.
The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork;
but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of
personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would
suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not
succeeding.

THE AUTHOR.

The words used are carefully chosen to be authentic, and to show us the attitudes of the characters. When Jim first appears, Huck describes him as “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim”. As the story goes along, with Jim a runaway slave rafting down the river with Huck Finn, the boy’s sense of Jim changes. This is plainly expressed in chapter 31, when Jim’s been caught; Huck is tempted to save him though he knows he’ll certainly go to hell for helping a runaway to escape his lawful master.

…I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and
I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then
says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”…

It’s a change of heart, not of mind; Huck doesn’t decide that slavery is wrong but that Jim is his friend. Jim’s still a slave but no longer a nigger, no longer some inferior being beyond the pale of friendship.

Professor Gribben has chosen to replace nigger with slave, but the two words aren’t at all equivalent. Slave is a legal term describing a human being who is legally deemed to be property of another. It might apply to a person of any race, and certainly has, historically. It is a condition, not an immutable element of identity. A slave can be freed, as some occasionally were by their masters, and the children born to freed slaves are free themselves. All slaves in the US were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But to most whites in the 19th C. South, a nigger was a nigger, whether he was a slave or free. If some French white man who’d been captured and enslaved by the Turks (like Candide) had visited, he might have been described as a slave or ex-slave but never as a nigger.

Huck Finn’s evil father holds violent views on this very subject, and goes into them in detail when we first meet him.

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. … And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me–I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger–why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?–that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now–that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and–“

How will this “free nigger” be described in the new version of Huck Finn? As a “freed slave”, I suppose. Try making that substitution in this passage and see how much difference it makes. “Freed slave” is a neutral phrase compared to the repetitive angry utterance of nigger.

We must presume that Professor Gribben does understand the difference between race— defined by unchangeable color, and legal condition—alterable by legal action. But he thinks that current unease over the word nigger justifies removing this word which is in fact the center of the book. Huck Finn is about nigger, it’s about deciding a person’s worth and status based on his color.

Twain was no fan of the farrago of falsehoods, taboos, and blind spots that make up much of “civilization”. He chooses as his protagonist a shiftless superstitious barely educated boy, who hates the prospect of being “sivilized” and having to wear shoes and not curse, the son of a violent drunk (“He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more,” says another boy about Huck’s father)—and then he shows us this boy weighing the evidence of his eyes and heart vs. what he’s been taught about niggers, and choosing to honor the former. Even if it means he’ll burn in Hell, even if he has to take serious personal risk to get Jim away from those who’ve captured him. They have the law, and local “civilization” on their side. Twain doesn’t exactly say what Huck has on his side, that’s for the reader to figure out.

Huck’s final words to us, with which the book ends, are “I reckon I got to light out for the
Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.“ I can imagine the bitter smile of Huck’s creator hearing that, 126 years after he was brave enough to publish a book about nigger, we aren’t brave enough to figure out how to teach something that contains that word. So we’re going to sivilize it to suit us.

TWAIN, MARK, undated photo.jpg

[Undated photo of Samuel Clemens]

NOTES

According to some estimates, Huckleberry Finn is the fourth most banned book in the US. Mark Twain really had us pegged.

From the pen of Thomas Bowdler ((1754–1825):

“I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare”

“Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.”

‘”If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed ; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.”

Sample “bowdlerizations” of the texts:

Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is referred to as an accidental drowning, not a possible suicide.
Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Damned spot.” is changed to “Out, Crimson spot.”

The prostitute Doll Tearsheet is completely written out of Henry IV, Part 1.

Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” is changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”

Juliet’s “Spread thy close curtain, love performing night” is changed to “. . . and come civil night”.

And so on…

It is not commonly known that Bowdler also prepared “family” editions of parts of the Old Testament and of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completing this edition just before his death in 1825. [this, quotations from Bowdler, and examples, from source]

Twain would have found confirmation for the hypocrisy of “civilization” in the fact that “[t]he editions were actually edited by Bowdler’s sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler’s name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare’s racy passages.” [Wikipedia]

Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

Hogarth engraving of street life among the poor.jpg

William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
and
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.

The Palm PDA as pioneer e-book reader, and Ernest Shackleton, and war

Before the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, there was the Palm

I got my Palm some years ago, to help out my fibromyalgia-diminished memory. It was like a proto-tablet, on which I could take notes, write, outline, draw and paint well enough to illustrate notes, and keep a calendar and to-do list. There were all sorts of games for it, and apps to change the look of the interface. The one feature I thought I’d never use was the ability to read entire books on that tiny screen.

But it came loaded with a mystery by a popular author and, compulsive reader that I am, I took a look at it and found it quite easy to read. Fonts and font size were adjustable and later I got a third-party app that enabled me to change the background color to one my eyes found more comfortable. I’ve been reading on my Palm ever since.

It’s a small device, about the size of a pack of cards, and with an upgraded memory card it can easily hold 50 or 75 books in addition to all the other stuff. iSiloX, companion app to one of the readers, would convert text files to Palm format (.pdb), so all of Project Gutenberg was mine.

Like most people, I don’t find it pleasant to read text continuously on the computer screen for an hour, and I would never have printed out these copyright-free books, but to have them available to read any time I wanted on the Palm—that worked for me. Is it easier to concentrate my visual attention on the small screen than on the large one? I don’t know what the reason is, but reading the Palm is more comfortable for long periods whether by daylight or in a dark room.

Shackleton Palm.jpg

Some of what I’ve been reading in the wee hours

Although I’ve bought a few e-books and issues of sf magazines for the Palm, mostly I have read my way through free downloads, 19th and early 20th C. works from Jack London’s social fiction and reflections on his own alcoholism, to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays. I’ve found several good reads among women writers including novels like Wives and Daughters (1865), and North and South (1854), by Elizabeth Gaskell, and excellent short stories by Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary Austin, and Katherine Mansfield. The Woman Who Did (1895) by Grant Allen, is about a “New Woman” who dared to live her life as she wished, having an affair but refusing to marry the man, raising the child, with tragic results. Then there’s the wide range of popular adventure fiction, of which I’ve enjoyed works by such out-of-fashion writers as H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, and Ouida, with titles like The Snake and the Sword, and Under Two Flags (both stories of the French Foreign Legion). All these have been enjoyable to read in themselves, and of course provide fascinating windows into life and attitudes, with the same sort of caveats that attach to judging our times by our popular fiction.

I’ve got some familiar big-C Classics on the Palm too, like Fagles’s recent translation of the Odyssey (a purchased e-book, I have it in print as well), Northanger Abbey and Tom Jones (haven’t been able to finish either one of these), a couple of Anthony Trollope novels (more readable, enjoyed The Warden), and a bunch of poetry. There’s a goodly selection of older sf to be found online as text files, and even some new sf books that have been made freely available by authors such as Cory Doctorow.

Views of Antarctic heroism, and of the world before ours

Just now my 2 am reading is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South, his account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17)—often known as the “ill-fated” Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their sturdy ship was trapped in pack ice for nearly a year, then crushed by the movement of the ice; the men lived on ice floes for some time since the current was taking them closer to land, but when the floes broke up under their feet, they took to 3 small open boats…and on it goes. The privation endured, the courage and resourcefulness shown, are astonishing. One aspect of human beings at their best.

Shackleton replica boat in pack ice.jpg

Replica of one of the expedition’s open boats, among pack ice.

And here too, are found glimpses of how differently some things were perceived.

Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left England just after the outbreak of what was to become World War I; at the time many thought it would be over by Christmas. I just read the part where Shackleton and a few companions reach South Georgia Island, having left the rest of the company slowly starving on Elephant Island, while they cross 800 miles of ocean in a small boat in order to send back a rescue ship. They are forced to land on the opposite side of the island from Stromness Whaling Station, and Shackleton takes the two fittest men on a 36-hour trek over glaciers and rocky peaks, without a map, to reach “civilization”.

The first thing Shackleton says to the whaling station manager, after introducing himself, is “Tell me, when was the war over?” It is May, 1916, and he cannot conceive that the war might still continue. The manager replies, “The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” Later, after arranging for the other two men on South Georgia to be picked up, Shackleton and a companion hear details of the war. “We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad,” he says.

I’ve often read of how shocked and demoralized people of the time were by this unprecedented industrialized war that dragged on and on, by the use of poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery, and planes, and by battles such as the Somme, in which over one million men (on both sides) were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, over a 4 and 1/2 month period. British casualties on the Somme (in these same three categories) were 80% during that time; by November, 80% of the original men in a division were gone save for those lightly wounded who returned. The total advance of the Allied lines was 8 miles.

But this scene, in which men in such an isolated and inhospitable place learn all at once of the war, has a different imaginative impact. After all, the late 20th-century reader may be appalled by the Somme, but knows already of things as bad or worse: the Holocaust, Rwanda, visions of nuclear war. To imagine Shackleton learning about his time’s Great War suddenly, in one conversation, is to experience a little of how it was for those of his time.

Many well-educated young men with literary leanings joined up in 1914, and some of them wrote poetry while in camps and trenches. The early World War I poetry is of a high idealistic tenor probably not equalled by any war poetry since, because that war changed reality for everyone then and since. Never again, I hope, can anyone write something like this, about dead soldiers:

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

First stanza of 1914 III: The Dead by Rupert Brooke.

As I recall, Brooke died just as his attitude toward the war began to shift from public-school “play the game” patriotism to something more hopeless and grim. But many another British war-poet showed this change of reality that took place for his generation and those to come, including us. Things were never the same. Though it is long, I’ll reprint here one such poem:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen, written in 1915.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (Latin) means “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. This famous quotation from Horace would have been extremely familiar to public-school boys, in that time when education always included the Latin language and literature as well as some indoctrination about the Empire. In 1913, the first line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Wikipedia), and the text and the sentiment were used to encourage enlistment and support of the war.

Indeed, Ernest Shackleton and his men (not one perished, incredibly) did emerge from the ice-bound wilderness “like men arisen from the dead” into a world forever changed.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918).jpg

Detail from John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1918). This painting hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over seven feet high and twenty feet long. It depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment. (Source)

Finding good fiction—a new place to look

BookCovers2.jpg

What is the difference between a book that libraries and bookstores shelve as “Young Adult” fiction, and one that goes into regular fiction?

This is a question that has occurred to me before. In the process of giving away kids’ books at the food pantry (described in a previous post) I also end up reading my stock which includes picture books, board books for infants, “chapter books”, and “YA” books. Most are ex-library, so Young Adult (defined as ages 13 – 18) books come bearing yellow “YA” tape markers on the spine. Some are as absorbing and satisfying as I could wish, and a few seem to defy their labels. “Yes, it’s a great book for a teenager, but also for adults,” I find myself thinking.

The most recent such experience was from a science fiction YA book by an author whose adult science fiction book I had just read. Searching for more of his work in the library I found the YA novel and checked it out. The author is Paolo Bacigalupi, and the books were The Windup Girl (2009, adult sf) and Ship Breaker (2010, YA). Mr. Bacigalupi is very hot in sf (see note 1), more than I realized; I think I read a story of his in Analog or Asimov’s, and off I went looking for more. That’s one of the good reasons for subscribing to fiction magazines, having new authors (or unfamiliar established authors) brought right to your door. And supporting the incubators of new writers, that’s important too.

Anyway, while his adult book is very good, I have to say that I enjoyed the YA novel just as much, and the writing, characterization, and plot were not inferior to the adult book.

So what does make the difference, why does one get a yellow YA label and the other not? Certainly it is not quality of writing.

Of course such formal classifications are not rigid, there is some overlap. They’re largely conveniences for marketing, and for the convenience of library patrons. Adults and teens do have some differences in taste, though, and those who stick on the labels must have some criteria. I listed some differences that I could think of:

YA fiction often includes
• a youthful protagonist
• the protagonist’s age as a defining factor: things are possible or not possible, things happen or do not happen, because the main character lacks the status, experience, privileges, that go with adulthood
• a “coming of age” story, either via a single event or a a longer period of growth; protagonist learns things that move her or him toward adulthood which may result in expansion of what’s possible for the character
• discovery of lessons or truths (appropriate to the culture): the value of the individual even if different from peers or expectations is a common one in our culture, along with the importance of loyalty, bravery, kindness; need for the young protagonist to strike out on his or her own, make difficult choices and make mistakes; learn that appearances are deceiving; find that one can sometimes master the unfamiliar, the formidable, through courage, persistence, hard work.
• following from the last two elements, there is often a moral structure to the book, making it clear that some choices are better than others and that choices bring consequences. I’m referring to a moral structure organic to the plot and characterizations, not something overt. (Preachy-ness turns off kids just as it does most adults, so it’s not going to be tolerated by most editors.) For myself, this added depth is high on my criteria for judging fiction, and a lot of adult fiction fails to deliver it.
• a less complex, more linear, plot than much—but not by any means all—adult fiction
• shorter length than many adult novels, although the Harry Potter series showed how even younger kids will read 700-page books if the book is good enough. And the extraordinary buzz among peers helped keep the enthusiasm up.

YA fiction almost never includes
• explicit sex
• graphic violence, pleasure from violence
• insanity or “perversity”
• the protagonist’s entire life history, birth to old age. Generally the book ends with adulthood or before.
• lengthy passages of description
• complex narrative devices such as multiple points of view
• politics or religion (except in denominational literature for youth)

You see that I didn’t make any of these rules absolute, though the first three under each heading probably come close. (The absolutism of the negatives—sex, violence, insanity—would be mostly for marketing purposes, not because books with these aspects wouldn’t appeal to teenagers!) The entire body of fiction published in a year is best viewed as a spectrum, with outright children’s books at one end, shading into YA fiction, then a range of books that can be enjoyed by adult or YA readers, shading into more and more adult fare.

spectrum line.jpg

Unlike this graphic, the distribution isn’t uniform, but would follow a reverse bell curve with a dip in the middle representing a relatively small fraction of published books which would be enjoyed by both teens and adults.

What’s the point of all this?

Aside from my personal urge to define and clarify, there’s the significant news for serious adult readers that the YA shelves hold some books well worth reading. When YA recommendation lists include Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings, it’s clear that the YA label can cover a lot of ground. All of these works were published before labelling came along, so we think of them as adult books. But now, a book like Ship Breaker may get a yellow tape label as a marketing decision because someone thinks it will sell more copies that way, not because it’s judged too simple or not interesting for older readers.

How do we find these books, other than by word of mouth and chance?

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has a website with lists of its awardwinners and recommendations. Lists include an annual Teens’ Top Ten determined by teenagers’ votes, Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Outstanding Books for the College Bound, and Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults. (Since I am such a promoter or reading by kids, I have to mention another list, for adults concerned about a teen who doesn’t read, called Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.) On the lists of award-winning authors there appear some familiar names such as Ursula Le Guin and Orson Scott Card, but more to the point there are lots of authors I’ve never heard of, and the net makes it easy to find out more about their books, maybe read a few pages on Amazon, and see if they’re at my library.

Easier yet, stop by the teen section of your library and sample some new fiction right there.

Give it a try, and I predict you’ll be rewarded with good books you’d otherwise have missed. And you’ll have more to talk about with the teenagers in your life!

Note 1: In fact, I see that The Windup Girl has won the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Awards for best sf novel and is a 2010 Hugo Award nominee, in the same category. Winning all three is the Triple Crown of science fiction. Bacigalupi has also received one of the awards named for science fiction masters, the Theodore Sturgeon Award. It also won the 2010 Compton Crook Award for best first novel. If I were Paolo, I’d be hunching my head into my shoulders anticipating some blow from fate after all this acclaim.

SummerReadingLG.jpg

Joost Swarte’s Summer Reading issue cover for The Walrus, “Canada’s Best Magazine”.

Ways in which print is superior to digital, part 1

NOTE: Which are better, fish or birds? Silly question, right? We must ask, “better for what?” I’m not maintaining that print is inherently a “better” medium than digital media, nor the reverse. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We should maintain both.

1. Permanence

Information on the web can vanish overnight. Maybe your webhost suddenly shuts down.

I once hosted a site that talked more about this idea at http://mind.blazingfast.net/TheRaft, but it seems that google nor the wayback machine are able to help me reclaim that page. source

blazingfast.jpg

Or someone controlling the content decides on a change…

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama launched a Web site with detailed information about his plans for technology, Iraq, and health care policies.

Now they’re gone. source.

ZZ4CFCCCB1.jpg

Image source.

In my own computer files I have the complete text of a book published in 1976, which was made available online by the author. It had to be downloaded one chapter at a time, and as I did so I was thinking “Oh this is silly, I can come back to this whenever I want.” But recently when I tried to go back to the link, it was gone, and the text is nowhere to be found as far as Google can tell.

What’s online may be altered too: the writer can undergo a complete turnaround, or merely make edits to what is posted, so that it’s difficult or impossible to recover the original. Rather like the drastic re-writing of history in 1984. With a printed book, such changes are additive rather than subtractive: an author publishes a “revised second edition” for example, but the first edition still exists and can be consulted. This means you can recover specific details lacking in the revised form (citations, turns of phrase, pronouncements, data, whatever it might be), as well as track the writer’s alterations.

As with other differences between print and online material, this lack of permanence shows how what’s considered an advantage can have a flip side, a drawback that is the consequence of a valued feature. Things have the “vices of their virtues”. Something that is easily updated cannot remain constant.

Even if digital data isn’t altered, it may become unreadable. We have found many examples of the earliest known writing, from 4600 years ago. And its glyphs are all visible to the human eye, able to be widely studied via photos so that languages are reconstructed and unknown forms of writing are deciphered. The pre-cuneiform writing below is part of a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple” about 2600 BC. (Wikipedia)

CuneiformTablet.jpg

Yet digital records less than a decade old may become unreadable because of physical deterioration or hard to access because of the adoption of new systems and hardware. The Wikipedia article on CDs shows a CD recorded in 2000 which by 2008 had lost part of its data due to physical degradation. And any computer user who is old enough, and is conscientious about making back-ups, probably has a stack of old floppy disks bearing data that didn’t get transferred before the old machine went out the door. If you find a ribbon-bound bundle of letters written in 1810 you can open and read them easily, but your own material stored 8 or 10 years ago on floppies—getting at that will take considerable effort, and each year that goes by will increase the difficulty of finding compatible equipment (as well as the likelihood that the disks themselves may be damaged or degraded).

When works exist only in digital form, there is reason to be concerned about how long they will endure, and be accessible. A shelf of books and movies on DVD may be about as hard to play in 2025 as a box of 8-track tapes is today. Software and hardware will have moved on. Where does that leave an author, if demand doesn’t support a re-issuance in new media? How do you share or re-read a book you liked or found important, when the computers that could read it are all in the landfill? What about historians, will they all have to congregate in museums of carefully-maintained antique computers, trying to coax words from deteriorated storage media? Print books, on the other hand, won’t become obsolete until the human eyeball evolves into something else (a barcode reader?).

So, if you want text or other material to be accessible to you in ten years, or to posterity in a hundred years, print it. On archival-quality paper.

Longlasting media

EarliestKnownDictionary.jpg

Above, one tablet of the earliest known dictionary (about 2,300 BC). Source is the fascinating HistoryofScience.com, which has timelines of short articles for various aspects of science, medicine, and technology. Some of their articles (including this one) are based on Wikipedia, but not all. Being able to scan through them by topic is great. “It consists of Sumerian and Akkadian lexical lists ordered by topic. … One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian. Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 [the one pictured] lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.”

dunhuang_starmap.jpg

Here’s a piece of thin paper 1300 years old: part of the earliest known complete star map, the Dunhuang Star Atlas. It was drawn in China about 650 AD. The paper survived being stored in a cave for an unknown period, and was found in 1907. Image source. More on this and another early Chinese star atlas here.

CopernicusPrintedBook.jpg

This book, printed in 1543, is a first edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. No data loss in nearly 500 years! Copernicus wrote it in Latin, which was then the international language of science, and is now called a “dead” language because it has no living native speakers. But due to its historical and religious importance, there are far more people alive today who can read Latin than can read 16th century Polish, the language Copernicus grew up speaking.

Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

Equisetum 2stages.jpg

Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.

EquisetumWhorls.jpg

The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

Equisetum StemCLOSE.jpg

and hollow.

Equisetum Hollow.jpg

The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

Equisetum stem cross-section.jpg

This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

Equisetum strobilum forms.jpg

In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.

EquisetumCones.jpg

Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

Prunus virginianus tree.jpg

and laden with tresses of white blooms.

Prunus virginianus .jpg

This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

Achilleia millefolium flowers.jpg

A closer view of the flowers.

Achillea millefolium flower detail.jpg

The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

achillea millefolium leaf .jpg

It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited, planetbotanic.ca, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

AchillesBinding Wound.jpg

Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.


Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

Achilles in battle.jpg

Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

Astyanax, Hector.jpg

“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.


The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

Walls of Troy.jpg

Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.

At the Food Pantry: Boy and books

There was a gangly boy, perhaps 14 years old, looking through the “Free Books for Kids” at the Food Pantry as I walked over. “Hi, finding anything you like?” I asked. “Well…” he said, ”do you have any comic books? like Spiderman vs. …” “No, the place where I get most of the books doesn’t have any comics, I’m sorry.” He picked up a thick hardback. “This is Harry Potter in Spanish?” “Yes, pretty good way to learn a language once you have some basics.” He made a polite noise and put the book back, but kept looking, telling me that he was moving to North Dakota this summer. That could be real soon, I thought, since tomorrow was the last day of school. “Whoa, that’s going to be a big change from Oregon. Have you ever been there?” “Oh, yeah, a bunch of times, we kinda go back and forth.”

He was a serious young man, with a good smile and a clear gaze. The other two people who’d gotten out of the small car were an older youth, brother I figured—same reddish-blond hair and very fair skin, and a woman who was being “head of household” over at the Food Pantry dock. She looked old enough to be their mom, barely, but then lately everyone seems too young to me.

I rummaged among the books for teens, looking for something he might like. I got few bookseekers his age, mostly my customers were under twelve. At a certain age reading tastes become more individualized, much harder to satisfy from my small stock of secondhand books and library discards. Here, among the chapter books, a fat paperback with a boy hero and “wizard” in the title. And an S.E. Hinton book, Tex, about a boy on his own on a ranch with his siblings after his mother dies and his father leaves to find work. I remembered a line, “I just went on spreading mustard on the baloney and eating it. We were out of bread.” On the cover were a motorcycle, which featured largely in the story, and a rawboned young man wearing a sheepskin jacket and a battered cowboy hat. I put it on the table near him, and looked for more. The (fictional) journal of a boy in the Union Army. One or two more.

The boy bound for North Dakota was still working through the books behind me, arranged in the open back of the car. “What’s this?” he asked, holding out an old grey hardback, a book club edition of Collected Stories of Mowgli. I’d just added it today. “It’s about a boy who’s raised by wolves,” I said, watching his face for signs of recognition. Nothing. “In India,” I added, “and he goes on living in the jungle with the animals. The stories are about his adventures and what he learns from them.” One of my favorite books as a child, I thought to myself, I really should be able to say something more about it. But he was interested. “How much is it?” he asked diffidently. “Oh, it’s free, they’re all free.” His face lightened, and his hand took a firmer hold upon the book. He looked at a few others without choosing any, then turned to the table. The book with “wizard” in the title made the cut, and another. “I’m getting some books for friends,” he said. “Good, that’s good.”

After a bit I ventured to say that he had a long drive ahead of him. “Yeah, three days,” with an air of remembering just how long those days were. “I have some other books to read too, though. Ice Fire and Dark Fire, it’s a series. There’s these two people, they live in a house with a bunch of dragons made out of clay. And a boy comes to live with them, they’re not his family, but he comes to live with them and the clay dragons start speaking to him, they’re not just clay…” Inner voices, not yet silenced, I thought, nodding as he spoke. His head turned quickly, he’d heard his name called though I hadn’t heard. “I’ve got to go now, thanks.” A lot of my interchanges with kids ended this way. “Sure, you’re welcome.”

He made several trips back to the small car with boxes of food, half-gallons of milk, and his brother groaned in a comic fashion under the weight of a large bag of dog kibble. Oh good, they’ve got a dog, hope the dog gets to go, but I won’t ask. Finally they were done, all three coming smiling back to the car; the mother gave me a friendly look, the grey-haired woman with the second-hand books who’d been talking to her son. He veered my way and said, with his open face, “Thanks for the books.” “You’re welcome, I hope you all have a good journey. And good luck in North Dakota.” They smiled and waved and off they went.