25 February 2017

On Selling Objectionable Books




A customer with a book in her hand came up to me one morning a few months back. She showed it to me and asked why we carried a book that was anti-Catholic. She added that we had a number of other, similar books in the Christianity section. Could we move the book to another section, she asked. Could we bring in a title she recommended on the persistence of anti-Catholic prejudice today? 

...

Now I was brought up Catholic, and I have run across such prejudices in person.  There was a particularly adorable young woman I was quite taken with at 17. We were out on a boardwalk date one sultry summer night, when she launched into this buzz-killing rant about those Papists.  (Yes, she said those Papists.)  I let her go on for about 20 minutes before suddenly interjecting "I'm Catholic."

Grinding gears, screeching brakes, the smell of rubber left on the road. 


Of course, she didn't mean me. 


Still, I didn't find her nearly so cute thereafter.

There were other instances, but this one at least has the virtue of being amusing and featuring nemesis.  I am not insensitive to such things, nor, being of Irish descent, to the remarks I often hear passed about the Irish. The strangest and most dumbfounding of these (because of its veneer of enlightened sympathy) came while I was living on the West Coast. An intelligent, otherwise well-educated man, asked me whether I had ever seen one of those 'No Irish Need Apply' signs back in New York.  Just allow me to clarify: I lived on the West Coast in the 21st Century, not the 19th.



But you know what? Compared to what a lot of people have to put up with all the time, even now, perhaps especially now, from people who look a lot like me, my life is very easy indeed. So I tend to take such ridiculous little remarks as come my way in stride.

...


So I look at this lady with The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism in her hand. I look at the cover, which I knew my mother would have laughed at, and my aunt, her sister, would have thought showed no respect for the Church. Both of them were quite devout, and both of them would have been quite right in their reaction to this book. I could feel them both behind me, one at each shoulder. Still, you know, it wasn't The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.



But all I could think was, 'For God's sake, lady, we sell Mein Kampf here.' In a day and age when people debate the ethics of punching Nazis.  Despite the fact that the last time anyone thought Nazis could be reasoned with 50,000,000 people died. Bricks and baseball bats are what get a message across to such people.

We Sell Mein Kampf.

And you know what, we should sell Mein Kampf, even though it gives me a knot in my stomach to say that.  It is as vile a piece of rancor, hatred, and stupidity as a vicious, deranged little man could trump up.

But to suppress such a book would in fact be far worse than punching a Nazi. For that would make us Nazis in our hearts far more than slugging them ever would. If we start suppressing books like Mein Kampf, we will become the Nazis and end up slugging them anyway.  Thomas de Quincey makes quite clear that this slippery slope leads to the punching of Nazis:
'If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.'
On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts
Now, does this mean that it does our souls less harm just to punch some Nazis? You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.



But perhaps the best reason for selling Mein Kampf was discovered by William Foyle, of Foyle's Books in London. As it says on Foyle's website:
When Hitler started burning books in the 1930s, William had immediately telegrammed the Fuhrer to request that he be able to purchase them instead and would offer a good price; the response quickly came back that Germany had no books to sell and the burning would continue. Years later at the start of the Blitz Foyles filled sandbags with old books to protect the shop from damage and William announced that he was covering the roof with copies of Mein Kampf to ward off bombers. Then a near miss left a giant crater just outside the shop, destroying the front of the Sun Electric offices across the road. William treated the sappers to sandwiches and ginger beer while they worked and when the bridge was complete they happily let him name it the Foyle Bridge, complete with ribbon cutting ceremony!
(emphasis added)

Anthony Burgess on The Dick Cavett Show

This is eternal.


20 February 2017

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review covers both Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology and Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes.


Unlike their Greek counterparts with whom most readers are far more familiar, the Norse gods impose little order upon the world. The best they seem able to do is withstand a greater chaos, for a time. Of course, they are rather chaotic themselves, as well as violent, willful, lusty, sometimes ridiculous and quite often treacherous. Only Odin seems to spend much time thinking about the future or the role of humans in this world, but that concern for humans is self-serving, as he seeks, favors, and betrays warriors in order to swell the ranks of his forces for the final battle at the world’s ending.


Now both Carolyne Larrington, the eminent and accomplished scholar of Old Norse, and Neil Gaiman, who surely needs no introduction, have published volumes on Norse Mythology within days of each other. It’s all so convenient the Norns might have had a hand in it. Each of these books is interesting and entertaining, but in quite different ways.


Gaiman, as one might expect, opts for a more dramatic treatment of his subject, retelling a selection of important myths at varying lengths, all building towards the climax of ragnarök. His tales are at times touching, at times quite funny. There’s a moment near the end, for example, where Kvasir, the wisest of the gods, guides Thor, not the wisest of the gods, to understanding the importance of a net Loki had created and destroyed, a moment which strongly reminds me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Sir Bedivere explains to the peasants how one determines who is and who is not a witch. Yet the fine and frequent humor of Gaiman’s treatment obscured for me, as it also did in his earlier American Gods, the overwhelming sense of loss now and disaster to come that haunts the world of gods and men in Norse mythology. In the end it seems reduced to a joke and a game, as a dying Heimdall gleefully informs a dying Loki that the last laugh is on him. The book’s last words 'And the game begins anew' only reinforce this impression.


Larrington, like Kvasir with his recreation of Loki’s clever net, captures more of what she seeks. By not focusing narrowly on the drama of the tales she captures more of their tragedy, and suggests more of their meaning for Norse and more broadly for Teutonic culture in general, since these tales were told from Vinland to the Volga and across the centuries before and after the North became Christian. Her inclusion of the part humans play in Norse Mythology -- of Sigmund and Sigurd and all their bloody-minded, bloody-handed kin, more accursed than the House of Atreus, more trapped by the needs of the gods but without the least final justice, doomed in every sense – gives the world of gods and men a fuller, rounder shape. For the tales involve us. The twilight of the gods is also our own. By including humans, the unwilling and often unwitting players in the doom of the gods, Larrington allows us to understand better the world which told these tales, because through them, as Lewis put it in Surprised By Joy, ‘pure “Northernness” engulf[s us]: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity….’


I did not laugh as often reading Larrington’s book as I did Gaiman's, but I nodded more and learned more. I would suggest, however, that they are most profitably enjoyed together.



Review: The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes

The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes by Carolyne Larrington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review covers both Carolyn Larrington's The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology


Unlike their Greek counterparts with whom most readers are far more familiar, the Norse gods impose little order upon the world. The best they seem able to do is withstand a greater chaos, for a time. Of course, they are rather chaotic themselves, as well as violent, willful, lusty, sometimes ridiculous and quite often treacherous. Only Odin seems to spend much time thinking about the future or the role of humans in this world, but that concern for humans is self-serving, as he seeks, favors, and betrays warriors in order to swell the ranks of his forces for the final battle at the world’s ending.


Now both Carolyne Larrington, the eminent and accomplished scholar of Old Norse, and Neil Gaiman, who surely needs no introduction, have published volumes on Norse Mythology within days of each other. It’s all so convenient the Norns might have had a hand in it. Each of these books is interesting and entertaining, but in quite different ways.


Gaiman, as one might expect, opts for a more dramatic treatment of his subject, retelling a selection of important myths at varying lengths, all building towards the climax of ragnarök. His tales are at times touching, at times quite funny. There’s a moment near the end, for example, where Kvasir, the wisest of the gods, guides Thor, not the wisest of the gods, to understanding the importance of a net Loki had created and destroyed, a moment which strongly reminds me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Sir Bedivere explains to the peasants how one determines who is and who is not a witch. Yet the fine and frequent humor of Gaiman’s treatment obscured for me, as it also did in his earlier American Gods, the overwhelming sense of loss now and disaster to come that haunts the world of gods and men in Norse mythology. In the end it seems reduced to a joke and a game, as a dying Heimdall gleefully informs a dying Loki that the last laugh is on him. The book’s last words 'And the game begins anew' only reinforce this impression.


Larrington, like Kvasir with his recreation of Loki’s clever net, captures more of what she seeks. By not focusing narrowly on the drama of the tales she captures more of their tragedy, and suggests more of their meaning for Norse and more broadly for Teutonic culture in general, since these tales were told from Vinland to the Volga and across the centuries before and after the North became Christian. Her inclusion of the part humans play in Norse Mythology -- of Sigmund and Sigurd and all their bloody-minded, bloody-handed kin, more accursed than the House of Atreus, more trapped by the needs of the gods but without the least final justice, doomed in every sense – gives the world of gods and men a fuller, rounder shape. For the tales involve us. The twilight of the gods is also our own. By including humans, the unwilling and often unwitting players in the doom of the gods, Larrington allows us to understand better the world which told these tales, because through them, as Lewis put it in Surprised By Joy, ‘pure “Northernness” engulf[s us]: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity….’


I did not laugh as often reading Larrington’s book as I did Gaiman's, but I nodded more and learned more. I would suggest, however, that they are most profitably enjoyed together.



Review: James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair: A Modern English prose translation

James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair: A Modern English prose translation James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair: A Modern English prose translation by Jenni Nuttall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting example of medieval dream and prison poetry, with a fine sense of humor, as befits a work that declares itself in the tradition of Chaucer and Gower. The translation is clear and sharp, while preserving the flavor and often eye-crossing sentence structure of the original. Jenni Nuttall, whose Stylisticienne blog contributes so much to our understanding of the meter used in the poetry of this age, has done a good service for all those fascinated by the literature of these times.