Sunday, November 7, 2010

I haven't actually stopped reading

The trouble is, a Kindle allows you to read so much at once. The Works of Lord Byron, vol. 1 -- here, the teenaged genius discusses his annoying mother:

... though timely Severity may sometimes be necessary & justifiable, surely a peevish harassing System of Torment is by no means commendable, & when that is interrupted by ridiculous Indulgence, the only purpose answered is to soften the feelings for a moment which are soon after to be doubly wounded by the recal of accustomed Harshness. I will now give this disagreeable Subject to the Winds.

And he writes a lot about his debts and his weight loss. It is interesting and encouraging, though, to see him grow up, to read him become sympathetic, self-deprecating even about his poetry, and humbly anxious to maintain old friendships. "I do not know how far our destinations in life may throw us together, but if opportunity and inclination allow you to waste a thought on such a hare-brained being as myself, you will find me at least sincere, and not so bigoted to my faults as to involve others in the consequences."  Old men kept his letters for fifty years.

Lays of Ancient Rome, Thomas Babington MacAulay. The Victorian schoolboy of legend read it or was assigned to read it, and out of it all, memorized it seems mostly this:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods...."

I liked the scholarly prose discussion of what happened to Rome's pre-imperial historical documents better than the poetry which MacAulay invented to try to recreate something of what they had said. It seems the Gauls burned Rome's archives in the 4th century B.C.E. when they sacked the city, and that Roman historians of later centuries knew perfectly well they had no documents upon which to base anything they wrote or thought they knew about that time. They had only, it seems, memories of popular legend and poetry; it would be as if American historians could only reconstruct the colonial period from childlike songs about Paul Revere's ride, or Washington crossing the Delaware. MacAulay's Lays are his imaginative reconstructions of what those word of mouth songs might have been; they concern the biggest topics of remote Roman history, like Rome's wars against more powerful Italian neighbors, or the class struggles between patrician and plebeian. It's astonishing, what MacAulay understood his readers would already know about what he was doing.

The loves of the Vestal and the God of War, the cradle laid among the reeds of the Tiber, the fig-tree, the she-wolf, the shepherd's cabin, the recognition, the fratricide, the rape of the Sabines, the death of Tarpeia, the fall of Hostus Hostilius, the struggle of Mettus Curtius through the marsh, the women rushing with torn raiment and dishevelled hair between their fathers and their husbands, the nightly meetings of Numa and the Nymph by the well in the sacred grove, the fight of the three Romans and the three Albans, the purchase of the Sibylline books, the crime of Tullia, the simulated madness of Brutus, the ambiguous reply of the Delphian oracle to the Tarquins, the wrongs of Lucretia, the heroic actions of Horatius Cocles, of Scaevola, and of Cloelia, the battle of Regillus won by the aid of Castor and Pollux, the defense of Cremera, the touching story of Coriolanus, the still more touching story of Virginia, the wild legend about the draining of the Alban lake, the combat between Valerius Corvus and the gigantic Gaul, are among the many instances which will at once suggest themselves to every reader.

Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages. Not at all what you might think -- not at all gamy little exposes of Victorian marriages that were troubled, as written by the men and women involved. Rather, simply short stories by a variety of Victorian authors, Kipling, Conan Doyle, etc., about characters in troubled marriages. Kipling's "The Bronckhorst Divorce Case" was not very interesting, and I have yet to move on to Doyle's "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange."

Also on my Kindle home page are the Life, Letters, and Epicurean Philosophy of Ninon de l'Enclos -- very strange; are the French really that different? When she warbles on about "love," does she mean sex, does she mean the love that makes a couple married sixty years nurse one another through the last illnesses, or does she mean a kind of freewheeling indulgence (including sex), of every new crush that comes along and excites you and flatters your vanity? -- on the grounds that indulging so is only human nature and therefore one must be humane and sophisticated and true to it? 

The White House Cookbook. The Rubaiyat of a Huffy Husband. The Spectator. Under Two Flags by Ouida, who I think was somehow scandalous and terribly popular in another era. The Chaplet of Pearls by Charlotte Yonge, ditto. Confessions of an English Opium Eater, certainly ditto. Aristotle. Twenty-four Little French Dinners ... not by Aristotle, that last.