Saturday, 28 July 2007

Pausing, then Effecting


A quick visit to my local secondhand bookshop ended up a bit of a crisis of hyperventilation and overspending. The usual story. One of the retiring dons has off-loaded some of his books, and he had a research interest in good stuff, like Chaucer. This means that there were many things I wanted. I had to make three piles in the end. The stuff I couldn't live without. The stuff I could live without for today (but no guarantees about tomorrow). And the stuff I know I'll regret not buying. (That's usually as good as it gets, I'm afraid). In the end I think that I was exemplary in my restraint and good judgment. First to call out to me was M.B. Parkes' Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992). A hard to find book, very competitively priced (£20). That was the little gem. Something I've used, and coveted, and wanted to own for a long time. The rest was all criticism I don't own but have read (with varying degrees of attentiveness). Owning them now and having them on my shelf obviously means I can return to them in my own time and ruminate. (That's the justification). Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (CUP, 1973); David Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (RKP, 1980), and very serendipitously Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 1992). Super stuff. A very happy bunny.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Bookbinders Bite Back

Those who have ever worked in an Irish library may have seen a little sticker in the bottom corner of the hardback library binding marked O'Reilly's. Well, it seems that globalization is now hitting the bookbinders and they are relocating to Eastern Europe where labour is cheaper. But the binders are having a sit-in, so well-done them. Sigh. I'm not optimistic.

The first John McGahern International Summer School was held over the past couple of days in Co. Leitrim. The programme looks interesting. I hope this Summer School establishes itself.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Islamic and Christian Medieval Astronomy: A Shared Heritage


These past three evenings there have been three public lectures held at the Dept. of Physics. Tonight's was on the Astrolabe, and it was given by Dr Stephen Johnston, from the Museum of the History of Science. In it he discussed the history of the astrolabe, how it works, and gave a really interesting demonstration of a little java applet of an astrolabe in action. He went through some interesting astrolabes, both Arabic and Western, as well as many others. I began to see how one might work, and how versatile as instruments they actually are. You can measure not just time, but you can also plot the planets and thus, someone's horoscope. It is so easy to forget that Chaucer actually wrote a manual on how to use the astrolabe, ostensibly at the request of his son Lewis. There are many interesting aspects to this work, not least the prologue, where he talks very directly about the nature and role of translation (for which see the very interesting article by Andrew Cole, 'Chaucer's English Lesson', Speculum 77 [2002], 1128-1167). It also occurred to me that this was a very anthropocentric way of thinking about time, at once very local (you have to use a plate with your latitude on it), and also universal, transnational. You could use an Arabic astrolabe for example in Europe with the right latitude plate and a bit of thinking.
Below is a wristwatch astrolabe, made by Dr Ludwig Oechslin at the Swiss watchmakers Ulysse Nardin. I can just imagine Lewis looking for one for his birthday! (Chaucer would have been writing a longer complaint to his purse then I rather think).

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Dorothy L. Sayers, Nine Tailors (Gollancz, 1934)

It is with a little embarrassment that I admit to reading only now the crime fiction of Dorothy Sayers. It was with her work on Dante that I was first acquainted, and only later saw that she was a such an accomplished crime novelist. The novel I started with is a late one in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and it is a very enjoyable read. The prose is getting a little creaky, and Wimsey himself is a funny character and not entirely one that you can believe or sympathize with. However, the story is marvellous, and its dénouement reminds me a lot of Murder on the Orient Express, only a little better because it's more shocking in many ways. Having spend a very short time ringing bells once in Dublin I was totally absorbed in all the bell stuff, and you've got to be to enjoy the book. The story is also very complicated, which requires immense skill to keep control of, to prevent it from dissolving. I shall certainly read soon Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night. And it was with delight and shock with equal measure that I read about her work as a copywriter on the Toucan Guinness adverts. I'll never drink a pint the same way again.

Also just read another of the Jonathan Argyll series by Iain Pears, Giotto's Hand (HarperCollins, 1994). I find these very enjoyable, though they are very light and frothy things. Great for a lazy Sunday when you're not in the mood for the papers and you've had a late night. Next on my list is Dibdin's last, and that will get a review certainly.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Harper 2005)

In this beautiful book Joan Didion relentlessly explores her grief after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. Her eye is unflinching, and at times you feel almost invasive reading it. The publicity has been huge, the praise deservedly lavish. A quick Google search will find all you need.
What I found very interesting about the book was they way that she researched grief. She was very practical about it, wanted to know what people's experiences have been, and read some very interesting material. For example she makes frequent reference to the great Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Towards Death From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, trans. Patricia Ranum (Johns Hopkins UP, 1974), and comes back to the medieval idea that the dying knew more about their own death than others. She cites the example of Gawain, in the Chanson de Roland, who responds to an incredulous question about the proximity of his death by saying: 'I tell you that I shall not live two days'. She repeats this like a mantra, reflecting on what Ariès says about this passage: 'Only the dying man can tell how much time he has left'. This leads her to look with what I can only describe as a searing set memories of his last hours, looking for any sign that John knew his end was near.

It's a beautiful book, and it's well worth reading. John Leonard, in his review in the NYRB (Vol. 52, No. 16, 20 Oct. 2005) ends aptly: 'I can't imagine dying without this book'. Didion's book is a modern answer to a medieval Ars moriendi, the survivor's guide.

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