Tuesday, July 12, 2011

liberal arts and learning how to read

In my search for things to read on my iPad without paying for them, i was naturally reminded of Project Gutenberg, which for years--decades, actually--has dedicated itself to releasing in accessible formats literature of any language which enters the public domain. The despicable copyright laws of the United States, where I believe copyrights will now help support a dead author's middle-aged grandchildren, means the pickings are slim in some respects: no Steinbeck for you, for example, nor Faulkner nor Hemingway. I'll have to check the data, but most of it, and certainly what interests me, is from the 19th century.

(The technically-unrelated Project Gutenberg Australia has some stuff unavailable in the U.S., due to different copyright laws: notably, Margaret Mitchell, George Orwell, and H.P. Lovecraft.)

You may safely imagine that most nonfiction from the period is now of limited use: the translations of Buddhist texts are as colonialist as the histories, and even where science has not made the texts useless, there are always updated and easier-to-read modern treatments of the same material.

I don't read a whole lot of fiction normally, but what I do read is often science fiction and fantasy...which have their roots in the 1800s. It dawned on me that Wells, Burroughs, Stoker, and Shelley were all 19th century. And Twain, Conan Doyle, Carroll. Inching back a bit, we get Defoe and Robinson. More obscure, H. Rider Haggard, creator of Alan Quatermain, and H.P. Lovecraft of the Cthulhu mythos. Branching out to highbrow literature, Henry James! Everyone seems to love Henry James. I must know why.

I'm reading all these things essentially because they're free in every sense of the word. I don't have to pay money; I don't have to cart around a book in addition to the iPad; I don't have to finish it by a library return deadline. I have however many dozen novels I feel like downloading, and I can read whichever I like, whenever I like. Had enough Dracula for the day? Daisy Miller (very obviously the namesake for Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan) is a good change of pace, or Huckleberry Finn or Sherlock Holmes for brain candy. Someday I'll plow through Robinson Crusoe: the first paragraph alone is excruciating. I started re-reading Treasure Island, too, which showed up for free in the Kindle app.

(Regarding Kindle books, I did buy Brad Warner's books: he needs the money and I wanted to read them. I may buy The Inheritance of Rome and A People's History of the United States, too, since they're both physically and intellectually dense, making for long reads. Mostly, though, I object to paying full price for digital media that I'm not free to copy, as extremely well-done as the Kindle service is. I'm sure my views will evolve with time.)

You get the idea. Ultimately inspired by the marvelous Bookslut blog and enabled by technology, I'm chugging through various classic titles and authors.

Despite my calling as a software engineer, I actually had a liberal arts education. And you know, somewhere in there I learned how to read: asking questions about character experience and motivations, and what was the author's deal? Where did this book really come from? What's she trying to say? I just started Frankenstein, and you know his name doesn't appear until Chapter 3? Is Frankenstein a Jewish name? He claims he's from one of the noblest families of Genoa: how would that work with the whole Jewish thing? The book came out in 1818 and is strikingly modern compared to the soul-sucking turgid prose that bogs down so much of the century's literature: Thoreau's Walden, highly quotable but badly written, is a good example. What makes Frankenstein so unusually awesome?

Did you know Bram Stoker was Irish and had never been anywhere near Transylvania? Me either.

People who censor Huckleberry Finn are idiots.

I'm very grateful for an education that sharpened beyond all necessity my natural tendency to ask questions and learn stuff. It's how I make a living, but it's also just more fun.

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