Question for the Day: Which James Joyce cover is your favorite? (Or is your favorite not here?) Let me know in the comments!
We’re getting a lot of great feedback on our latest History of Literature episode, #44 – The Confessions of St. Augustine. One of the great things about Augustine is how readable it is: even though the arguments are deep, the prose is never dense, especially in a very good translation.
Several of you have asked which translation I would recommend. I’m not an expert, but I’m happy to offer my thoughts. I’ve previously relied on the Penguin editions, and those are usually pretty safe bets. This time I looked at several before deciding on the one I did, which is by Maria Boulding.
(Clicking the image will take you to the Amazon page.)
Translations can be excellent in different ways. Boulding’s is fresh without being anachronistic, readable without losing the Latinate rhythms and flavor. I think it does Augustine justice. I read a few passages yesterday on the podcast, but for those of you who want to examine it on the page, here’s an excerpt to see what you think:
Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.
Good, right? And here’s a simpler one, leading up to the famous “pear-tree incident”:
Beyond question, theft is punished by your law, O Lord, and by the law written in human hearts, which not even sin itself can erase; for does any thief tolerate being robbed by another thief, even if he is rich and the other is driven by want? I was under no compulsion of need, unless a lack of moral sense can count as need, and a loathing for justice, and a greedy, full-fed love of sin. Yet I wanted to steal, and steal I did. I already had plenty of what I stole, and of much better quality too, and I had no desire to enjoy it when I resolved to steal it. I simply wanted to enjoy the theft for its own sake, and the sin.
That’s a simple, workmanlike paragraph. But those are the ones that need to get you through. Think of a translation as a trip to the Himalayas: yes, you can expect the peaks to tower above you, but you also should pay attention to the way the valleys are going to connect one base to the other. Boulding’s translation gave me the full, rich landscape, and I was happy to spend some time there.
“I had been putting off the moment when by spurning earthly happiness I would clear space in my life to search for wisdom; yet even to seek it, let alone find it, would have been more rewarding than discovery of treasure or possession of all the world’s kingdoms, or having every bodily pleasure at my beck and call. I had been extremely miserable in adolescence, miserable from its very onset, and as I prayed to you for the gift of chastity I had even pleaded, “Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.”
Good news! Tomorrow we’ll release our long-awaited podcast episode on St. Augustine and his amazing book, The Confessions. You can prepare by revisiting our episode on The New Testament or our episodes on Greek tragedy.
Greek Tragedy? Yes indeed. It turns out that St. Augustine was a great chronicler of tragedy. He went to see them, wept and mourned, and then agonized over what it all meant.
I have to say, I recalled reading Augustine with interest many years ago, but this time I was simply blown away. His intellectual honesty, his precision in describing his struggle, his humor, his humility…it’s a great, great book.
The History of Literature Episode 41: Reading The New Testament as Literature (with Professor Kyle Keefer)
Charles Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.” Thomas Paine complained that it was a story “most wretchedly told,” and argued that anyone who could tell a story about a ghost or even just a man walking around could have written it better. What are the New Testament’s literary qualities? What can we gain from studying the New Testament as a literary work? Professor Kyle Keefer, author of The New Testament as Literature – A Very Short Introduction, joins host Jacke Wilson to discuss what it means to read the New Testament as literature.
Hello! I hope everyone has recovered from Thanksgiving and is looking forward to the rest of the holiday season and the new year. It’s a time to rejoice (or read-joyce, as we had going last year) and to not be lonely.
It looks like another busy week here in Jackeland!
On Monday, we’ll have an episode on Greek tragedy on the History of Literature podcast. Why did so many people in ancient Greece go to these things? How did tragedies work? What (if anything) do we gain from tragedy today? We’ll take a look!
(The podcast is up to #4 on iTunes list of New and Noteworthy literary podcasts. Onward and upward!)
On Tuesday, we have a special tribute to the criminally underrated Edward Gorey.
On Wednesday…oh boy, Wednesday is going to be fun. I’m not going to say anything else: just a surprise. It’s a post that would put a smile on Scrooge’s lips. Skip everything else if you must, but don’t miss Wednesday.
On Thursday, Gar returns from his vacation to help with another Restless Mind Show. (That’s another show I do on the same podcast feed as the History of Literature podcast.) You’ll be able to stream it right from here, of course.
On Friday, we take a look at Alfred Hitchcock and Adele (yes, the two of them are analyzed together), and on Saturday, we’re running a tribute to classical scholar Mary Beard. Jeez. Sometimes I have to scratch my head and think, Jacke, what the hell are you doing? Is there any other blog who has a schedule like this? No wonder I have a small but devoted band of followers. There are only so many crazy people in this world. Well, not crazy. Eclectic.
Okay, that’s enough for now! Go see Creed, it’s a good movie, we need more movies like it.
Have a great week, everyone!
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Hello! We’re hard at work getting ready for the Sappho episode of the History of Literature podcast, which we’ll release on Monday. Brilliant reader MAM posted this comment:
Did you know that Sappho influenced the name of what is now a ghost town in Western Washington in the late 1800’s?
There was a community of people reading Sappho in Western Washington in the 1800s? Not just reading her, but naming their town after her?
I would have guessed Shakespeare or Plato. Maybe even Ovid. Dante, okay, right. The Bible, of course. Homer. Or the nineteenth-century greats: Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Trollope, Thackeray…
But Sappho? Who’d have guessed? This required more investigation!
As it turns out, the guy behind all this is exactly as you’d expect: a little crazy, a little passionate, somewhat charming, somewhat roguish.
The town [of Sappho] was founded by Martin Van Buren Lamoreux, who left St. John, Kansas in 1889 with 8 of his 10 children, his second wife and her 3 children from a prior marriage. Arriving in Seattle, some of the party settled on Lake Union, but Lamoreux, thinking that land worthless, set out for the Olympic Peninsula.
The land around Lake Union was worthless? Okay…he got that one wrong. In a pretty huge way.
But admiring Sappho? He got that one right!
Stop back on Monday to find out why!
One of the great tragedies of literature is how much of Sappho we’ve lost: not just the poetry but ALL of the accompanying music.
What did Sappho sound like? We don’t know. We can’t know.
But we can guess.
Here’s one version, courtesy of youtube:
That’s Sappho’s poem set to music by Eve Beglarian, sung in ancient Greek by Andrea Goodman, who is accompanying herself on a 7-string lyre. The clip comes from a production of the New York Greek Drama Company in 1987, directed by Peter Steadman.
Beautiful? It is to me. As beautiful as Sappho’s actual songs? Alas, we’ll never know.
Dear Readers and Listeners,
It’s a heavy-hearted weekend for the world. All of our very best wishes for peace, love, and safety to our friends in Paris. Let’s hope we somehow learn to end the madness of hatred and violence.
This week on the History of Literature Podcast, we’ll take a deeper look at the passage in which Odysseus leaves the goddess Calypso. On Thursday, we’ll be back with another Restless Mind Show. In this episode, we update the world on our interaction with Bryan Cranston’s agent, whose feedback has inspired an exciting new Jacke Wilson project.
Don’t miss last week’s episodes:
Literature has been many things to many people over the years. A comfort, an escape… and a way to remind ourselves in humanity’s brightest sides as well as its darkest. I hope you and your loved ones find a way to connect this weekend, and that the world finds a way to see ourselves out of this dark tunnel we currently find ourselves in.
I don’t want to overpromise until I hear more details, but it sounds like tomorrow will be a Very Big Day for The History of Literature Podcast. Here’s a hint:
See you then!
Okay, the new podcast is off to a great start! Many thanks to all the listeners, wherever you are, and whoever you may be.
It seems that a lot of you have the same question I do:
Is literature dying?
I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a straw man! I get it, I get it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred that kind of question results in a “No, it isn’t!” We all tune in for the fake drama, and in the end the host concludes what we all knew that he or she would. Literature’s not dying! It’s stronger than ever! Thank you for listening.
But…this might be that one hundredth time!
More to the point, I am not sure of the answer yet.
That’s right! I didn’t come up with this question as a clever way of attracting attention. This is not a disguised way of setting up a podcast about how great literature is, and let’s celebrate how wonderful it all is, and aren’t we all just spectacular beings for celebrating it all together, here in this celebration. This celebration of literature. And us. The lovers of literature.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that literature is great. I’ve always thought it was powerful. A force for good. I believed in it.
Now I look around and…well, I’m not so sure we need it anymore.
What did we get from literature and great books that we can’t get elsewhere?
Reading is wonderful, of course…but so were handwritten letters. So was a morning newspaper.
We’ve moved on from those things. And maybe we’ve simply moved on from literature.
We don’t read as much as we used to–well, that’s not exactly true, is it? We probably read more than ever. And we probably write more than ever. We have a very literate society. It’s just that it’s all taking place on the internet.
Do we sit down and read big novels like Anna Karenina or Middlemarch? Maybe a few of us do, now and then. And some contemporary novels still sell copies, and some of those are weighty and important and cover serious topics and deserve their place on the shelf of Great Books. Some people still read them, just as some people still get their morning newspaper.
But are they essential?
It’s easy to blame ourselves for the declining sales and reduced position that literature has in today’s world. It’s all our fault! We’re easily distracted! We’re stupid! We prefer our phones or our videogames or social networking because we’re lazy and dumb. We used to be so much better.
I don’t think that’s the whole story.
I think we need to look harder at literature itself.
Why did we read before? For entertainment? Escapism? Moral instruction? Curiosity? Empathy? To better understand what it’s like to be another person in a world different from our own?
Isn’t all of that available now on Facebook? Blogs? Netflix?
Maybe it’s not our fault that literature has lost some of its relevance. Maybe literature just isn’t good enough at delivering what it’s supposed to deliver. Maybe it can’t compete.
So in that spirit, I have a podcast called The History of Literature. And yes, the title suggests that it’s a straightforward narrative. You know how those go. Book, book, book, author, author, author, period, period, period. We march from one phase to the next as easily as slipping out of our robe and into a warm bath.
But this isn’t a warm bath. It’s more of a quest. I feel like I’m out there battling monsters.
Yes, I’m going to cover as much great literature as I can. And yes, there will be times when I’ll be swept away with enthusiasm, because I’ll forget my concerns and embrace the power of literature. I know the feelings I get when I encounter the sublime. I recall the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion I’ve felt for novels and poems and stories and plays in the past.
In the past. Did you catch that? In the past.
Is it the same now? Or has something changed? Are we headed toward a sunset?
That’s what we’ll be exploring. Yes, these are undeniably great books. We can enjoy them, admire them, celebrate them–and we’ll be doing plenty of that, I’m not a zombie or a robot or a masochist.
But we’ll also be asking this more difficult question: What can these great books offer us today?
Join us on the quest!
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you read as much as you once did? If not, why not? Where do you turn instead for the things that literature used to provide? Let us know in the comments!
For podcast listeners (or those of you new to the idea), the easiest way to get the podcast automatically downloaded to your phone (or tablet or computer or whatever else you like to listen to) is probably to subscribe via iTunes. You can direct download the mp3s, stream episodes, and find more subscription options at the main site, historyofliterature.com.
Do you have another preferred delivery mechanism I’m not providing? Let me know!