Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Charlemagne's Contribution to Literature

Complete with Holy Hand Grenade!
Hi there folks, been a little while. I've been a little busy and my computer has been a little anti-social as of late. Just a wonky power supply, nothing I can't handle.  Just need the time to install the part I ordered and fix it. While I'm at it I would just like to plug Newegg - awesome site. Anyhow, I am here at the lovely East Longmeadow, MA library for a spell and I am going to send one out for you.

What I wanted to touch upon today is something that I read. My latest strolls of leisure reading have taken me to the nefarious Dark Ages of Europe. Now in my previous blogs you know that this is a favorite haunt of mine. In particular I've been reading the biography of Charlemagne. As a historian, I know that this guy was pretty darn important for the formation of Europe. Non-historians out there may have heard of him, but really unless you've done some study he's just the guy with the really cool name. That's alright though, I'm the historian it is my job to know this stuff and get the yellow pie piece in Trivial Pursuit for you.

Without going into too much detail what Charlemagne basically did was give the collapsed, fragmented ruins of the Western Roman Empire a much needed shot of logistical administration. He pulled Pope Leo III's bacon out of the fire. Founded the Holy Roman Empire. Made strides in reforming the clergy and local magnates. Engaged in some very frank ;) diplomacy. Almost married Empress Irene of Byzantium (now that is a What If). At Aachen founded one of the first major cities since the heyday of Rome. And most importantly he lived long enough to do all this. He lived a life.

His strength, charisma, longevity and pious devotion allowed him to do all this. Although there is one thing that is often overlooked when discussions of Charlemagne emerge. Yes, he made an honest attempt at bringing the learned academics and philosophers together to rekindle Western civilization. That did create some sparks in the doldrums. However what is more important to me is that he acted to preserve many old classical texts.  From Charlemagne by Derek Wilson:
From A.D. 0 to A.D. 800 some 1,800 manuscripts and fragments survive. From the following 100 years we have more the 7,000.
That is a really big deal. The old manuscripts were very fragile constructions. Fires, mold, insects, neglect, re-purposing, vandalism all were very real threats to these old texts. It is a miracle that many have survived. Education during this time was restricted and not terribly necessary. Charlemagne, to many, was a barbarian king. To be completely honest this was true of many leaders of the day. Martial survival was the Maslow self-actualization of the day. No self-respecting Frank would be caught dead living the effete life of a Byzantine noble.

Charlemagne was lucky to have the scruples to recognize the importance of education. He did benefit from some education in his youth, but truly he was a man of war and not letters. The imprint of his respect for those who were educated was felt all through his reign and his attempt to create a civilized empire. Without Charlemagne to save these texts what would have been lost? Yes, the Renaissance had had many factors contributing to its flowering, but how important was the Carolingian Renaissance? How important were the existence of these texts in the monasteries and abbeys? The collection started by Ptolemy and which had been floating around the Roman world would they have been lost for good. It is a question.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A New Library Card!

Today I made a little impromptu visit to my new local library. I recently moved and I hadn't yet visited. Well, today I had some free time and I needed to visit the town hall. After paying my excise tax and updating my voter registration that taking a whole five minutes I found that I had some extra time. So I walked across the building to the library. Yes, the town hall and the library share the same building. How convenient is that?

Family Photo
Well, I am going to save my review of the East Longmeadow Public Library for another blog. (Soon, I promise. I do want to say however that I enjoyed my visit very much.) What I did do there was something that I really needed to do. I updated my library card. My last card was so faded and beaten the poor thing. Plus, last Fall I realized (on a very stressful day I might add) that the number of my card did not match the number in the computer. So as I was trying to use the network printer the number I was using to log in was not matching the number to check out a book. My twenty print requests sitting in a buffer limbo for an account that doesn't exist - never executed. A sad end. It was a matter of some misplaced zeroes. It was a bad day. Well, it has been retired.

So now I have a spiffy new card brimming with future possibilities. The procedure was a snap. Three tasks off my list in ten minutes - a good day. When I got home I decided to look through my old library cards and took a little group photo. I am fairly positive that I found the ones that I have. I thought that I had my first from Easthampton, but that doesn't appear to be the case. I do know that I had an earlier Holyoke card when I first went to school after my Mother and I moved to Holyoke and would have had a nice big 1983 on it. I also thought that I had one from Springfield, but after some thought that was not the case. I used my Holyoke card at Springfield before all the libraries linked up online then I used my Chicopee card afterwards. So many great memories with all of them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

World Book Night

Today is a blogging day. We in the Northeast are deep in the icy reign of Winter Storm Pax. Wonderful name for a blizzard don't you think? Pax... Outside in the city it is the peace of the absence of cars on the roads and of people inside their houses. Personally as a transplant from rural suburb to the city, I have always loved the peace during a snowstorm. Ahh, but I digress today I wish to convey awareness of an event.

Mark this date on your calendars, April 23. Without checking can anyone tell me any special about that date? It is something germane to the mission statement of this blog. And no the current blog title does not count. I'll give you few minutes to think. I'll just sit here and wait... ... ... Anyone have a guess? If you would have said UNESCO creates World Book Day you would have gotten a cookie! I would have also accepted the anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. For book lovers it is one of our days.

[Please note that in the UK World Book Day has since been moved to March 6. It is the first Thursday in March. It avoids clashes with the Easter holidays and St. George's Day.]

In Spain there is actually quite a bit of a celebration surrounding the death of Cervantes. To go into the life and works of either Cervantes or Shakespeare would take more than a mere paragraph.Cervantes lived an interesting life. In addition, his Don Quixote is considered the first European novel. That's big. In Spain they celebrate with a two-day long readathon of Don Quixote. The King of Spain also gives one deserving Hispanophone (didn't have to look that one up ^^) the Miguel de Cervantes Prize for lifelong achievement in contribution to Spanish literature.

However, I did say World Book Night. That is the next step in the evolution of April 23. With so much literary celebration going on about the world why not try to bring the gift of book reading to light and non-readers. That is the goal of World Book Night. It is a coming together of authors, book sellers, libraries and book lovers to put books into the hands of people who otherwise would have no real self-drive to do so. It is a concerted effort and it is growing.

I know that I am pretty much preaching to the choir when I speak on the benefits of book reading and literacy in general. It sparks greater levels of cognition, imagination and mental health. Book readers and more likely to participate socially. Being well-read certainly helps people become more employable. It is a win-win scenario.

The books that are chosen are good starter books. They are chosen to appeal to a wide-variety of ages and interests. Many people who don't read don't do it because they feel that books are overwhelming and time-consuming. It is not so much that they are disinterested. They are afraid. These books smooth over that trepidation. They show that books are objects of enjoyment, not fear. They show that reading books is not wasted time without benefit. It helps show that reading books is mental exercise with great benefit. Best thing is that these books are freely given.

[That's a lot of books! :) ]

This event began in the UK and Ireland in 2011. It has since spread to Europe and the Americas. While I am not yet a 'giver' in this event I wholeheartedly endorse this event. This is good.

Learn more. Here is a link to World Book Night - US. Check it out!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Turn: America's First Spy Ring

Dovetailing perfectly off of my last blog post AMC has added yet another fantastic series to its lineup. Just like the title says it is based off of the first rebel spy ring and set during the Revolutionary War in 1778. It is based off the book Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose. That book has been on my radar for some time and apparently I get to watch it before I read it. From what I can tell the series is set to premier on April 6, 2014. American historical spy thriller set as a drama without any schlocky nonsense. Yea, I'm a junky for this subject matter.

This is what I have been talking about when I said that there were so many stories just waiting to be told out there. I don't mind if they want to take the safe road and go with successful books. That is fine with me. Just go out and produce these series. I want more of this and less mindless reality TV or lowest common denominator sitcoms. Let's raise the level of pop-culture a little bit.

The nice thing about historical drama is that unless you are going for outright propaganda or desire to change history on an Orwellian level there really is only so much dramatic license which is acceptable. It is one thing to upset fanboys by not giving your superhero the correct canon origin story. It is another thing to rattle historians with too much deviation from fact. It can still be a good story on both those counts, but you lose claim to the mantle of accuracy and move the story into the genre of historical fiction. Despite people's biased and foggy memories it only happened one way. There is absolute truth.

Again, I must state these series being presented are as much educational as they are entertainment. Even if the actual historical accuracy is not perfect it still deposits the seeds of possible further study into those viewing. This is worthy of support. So I intend to watch this when it premiers.

Here is a link to the AMC page for Turn. It includes a trailer.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Dramatic History: Enjoy the Golden Age!!

Over the past couple of weeks I have been indulging myself with a little television. I don't really watch as much as I used to when I was younger. I find myself in other pursuits and quite frankly I don't really miss it. So when I watch something nowadays I am going out of my to do so. The series which has caught my eye as of late is the 2007 production of The Tudors. It is a well-acted and very well written drama centered on one of history's famous bad boys - Henry VIII.

When it first came out I had heard of it, but it was one of those circumstances where I would say that I would eventually get around to seeing it. As a lover of history I wish I had watched it during its first run. The history is not perfect, but it was never meant to be a documentary and it doesn't have to be. So there are wide swaths of dramatic license. The core history is fine. You have all the main players and events of the day. For a historian it is some very delicious mental cotton candy. However, for someone who is not schooled they would certainly draw from it knowledge which would put them on par with basic historical knowledge. Which is a good thing!

Now this is not a new development. History is probably the foremost used font for drama. Through many avenues storytelling transports historical events to the waiting audience. Technology and culture developed to deliver more complex means to inform and entertain. Most often the story came first and the facts a distant second. The goal is always to entertain. One can't tell a tale to a fleeing audience. So there exists a ratio which must be constantly re-evaluated. How much true historical detail is palatable to the audience? History is wonderful and to many stands on its own merit. However, when dealing with the unwashed commons how much embellishment is required to keep them enthralled?

For most of human history it has been the assumption that story must trump truth. The people can't handle deep involved stories which require a modicum of education to truly follow. More or less this has been true. The more specific one gets your audience will get more defined. Now there is a curveball thrown in there. For many years only the educated could read. So delivering enlightened books to enlightened readers was a match made in Heaven. Delivering performed drama on the other hand required the support of many more people on a far more consistent basis. So the noise to signal ratio had to be lowered. This quite naturally was inherited by motion pictures and then onto television.

For all the negative vibes coming out of the entertainment industry this is one development that is happening which is good. The education of the general masses in addition to a superior cultural complexity is allowing for really the first time the presentation of strong dramatic history to the general population. Yes, there have been some good historical movies produced. They are the first evidence of the percolation of this trend. Television was always the harder nut to crack. No offense to PBS or the BBC, but for many decades historical fiction was presented like a turkey cooked too dry. In my opinion this had the effect of driving people away which further led to critics and "experts" saying that the interest just wasn't there.

That began to change in the late 70s and 80s. James Clavell's book turned mini-series Shogun was a major success. Shogun not only was epically produced, but remarkably true to the source material. I read the book and saw the mini-series. Not everything in the book made it to the screen, but the historical depth for its day was credible. Perhaps the exotic nature of the story helped, but that is more a credit to the actual history rather than the need to dress-up the tale. A few years later in 1985 another mini-series North and South based on the US Civil War came out and was a success. The producers and studios were beginning to realize that there in fact was a television market. Fast forward and that in turn brings us back to The Tudors.

As lovers of history we now live in the day when these productions are being made. Movies are nice, but one gets far deeper into actual history with television. We now have TV series' based on the Italian Renaissance (The Borgias), the Servile Wars of Rome (Spartacus), the English Reformation (The Tudors), the ascent of the Normans (Vikings), the building of the transcontinental railroad (Hell On Wheels) ... and Downton Tabby. These are historical lessons being taught. However - and this is a big however - we need to actually watch these productions. They have been somewhat successful. Many have seen a good two or three seasons. We want to keep the trend going. Lovers of history we want more of this! We can't allow the progress to be lost. It was announced that The Borgias was going to cease production due to expense. That means they weren't turning a profit. We can't allow this to happen again!

There are so many more tales waiting to be told. Not just fluff, but real historical detail which isn't the same rehashed 'safe' stories. So please, make some time and tell your friends when you find something good. Together we can keep this golden age aloft.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chess in the Library: Natural Harmony

Chess Library
Is this not perfect? 

It is a wonderful synthesis when two hobbies in life come together in such a perfect way. Activities like watching TV and eating dinner, walking and daydreaming, owning a cat and being a masochist. I am talking about my love of chess and my love of libraries. Whether it be in a private home library or a public venue one can enjoy both in tandem.

My father showed me how to play when I was six. My uncles all played too. They had fun knocking me around. Eventually my Uncle Vincent who was really into chess took me under his wing. It was the late 70s. Medieval imagery and stories were booming at that time. Tolkien, Arthurian lore, role-playing games were all being brought out from the colleges and into the mainstream. I remembered being immersed in this fascinating bygone era. It was a mix of fantasy, history, fact and fairy-tale. I could not get enough of it. I think that it was one of the things my parents really shared in common. They weren't scholars or serious hobbyists. They just found it fascinating and it rubbed off on me.

Chess Library
A lovely hotel amenity
The game of chess really was a perfect admixture for all that culture from all those different sources. I always associated chess with that era of my life. Also, chess and its relation to medieval history brought to me an appreciation of academia and libraries. Museums and libraries brought me to a deeper, more complex appreciation for the book. From the book to writing to blogging. So all this comes together quite nicely.

Now, what better room is there for your chessboard than your personal library. (And no, your chess app on your e-reader does not count!) Sorry, you need reality and a room. You need wood shelves, old books, some comfy chairs, a fireplace if you are lucky. The parlor isn't really that good. The TV is there. It is usually a central hub of the house with people going in and out. A private room with few distractions aside from the tinkling of ice in your whiskey glass. Just you and your opponent. I wonder how many old  That is a good time.

What's in your chess library?
Public libraries too can join in the fun. They often are host to small public gatherings, book signings and informative guest speakers. Chess is not always played privately. It has been known to be a spectator sport. The library provides a wonderful setting for friends or chess clubs to get together over the pieces. It is a great way to use the library and advertise a game steeped in tradition.

Speaking of chess clubs while I was researching this blog I found a nice organization called Chess In The Library. They are a primarily Canadian group who fosters chess clubs that meet in libraries across Canada. Why let the Canadians have all the fun? I'm sure some other countries out there can do the same. And yes, I am sure some already have their own. So, if you are looking to join a chess club and are less than thrilled with online play go to your local library and see if they have something going on.

Chess Library
These guys really get into it!

Chess Library
This is more along what I was thinking :)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Reviews

Today I wanted to speak on a subject that has been bubbling in the back recesses of my mind for some time now. That subject is the book review. Why, you ask? Well, if you must know, I need to think of fresh topics that may pique your interest. It is something that I have been intending on writing for some time now. Today is that day, well rather that night. Now you are probably wondering what exactly about book reviews am I going to touch upon. I'm getting to that! If you would just stop wondering and allow me to write I'd get to that. Quit interrupting me!

The point that I wanted to make was this notion that somehow 'neutral' book reviewers are somehow are more favored than people personally known reviewers. This is something that I hear from everyone I know who has written or is currently writing books. I do know a few. This is something that personally drives me insane. Why is someone who cares absolutely nothing about whether you succeed or fail as a writer more valued than someone who has a stake or just personally wants to see the writer succeed? Since Patriarch Photios (yeah, same guy who got into a theological scuffle with Pope Nicholas I) wrote the first recorded book review (Bibliotheke) back in the 800's there have been many book reviews and thus people in similar positions.

While I am not a 'book reviewer' per se I have done so. I've read them. I've seen them published. We all have. I will grant you that professional reviewers probably have a greater skill. They know what to look for with greater technical proficiency. I can see that. Yet, I feel if a pro reviewer had a friend who was a writer the writer would still hold the review at the end of twelve-foot pole like a plague-ridden blanket.

Why is this? Here there is no question of technical acumen. Here is where we get to the crux of the issue. This is an issue of definition. The writer does not want a 'neutral' reviewer. The writer wants a stranger to read the book. The writer is already somewhat satisfied with the work to allow another to read their treasured time. The writer already knows that there needs to be some refinement. The writer just wants to know that their blood, sweat and tears has reached the mind of a completely new individual who is hopefully enjoying their work. That the stranger will tell others who will in turn tell others. This will eventually lead to  every one in the whole world having read their book (and liked it).

Yes, I know this writers out there. I am one of you guys. I am in your position. I have my own project in progress. I will put it out there for my friends to read when it is done. I will be itching for my work to take that next step, for it to flower and succeed. My advice to my compatriots in the fight out there. Take advice and constructive help wherever it can be found. Your friends DO want your success. They are not reading your work with rose-colored glasses. They are not the villagers in The Emperor's New Clothes. They want to help and be a part of the process. The reviews from the outer world will come in time.

(My 100th blog post! Yay!)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Old TV

Well, we made it to New Year's Day. Not really much to do today it is cold outside with a blizzard on the way. I would probably kick back and read for a bit, but there is a Twilight Zone marathon and that is one of my guilty pleasures. Been a longtime fan since I was a kid. The episodes really don't scare me anymore, but I am of an age where I can understand Serling's moral messages.

That is not what I am writing about today. Today I speak about old TV and old movies in general. While I watch these movies I am as much enjoying the setting as well as the story. I enjoy watching what was modern turned time capsule. I'm not talking about attempted recreations of the past. I'm talking about movies set in what was the modern day. I love watching the old signs, the house furnishings and appliances, the sayings, pool halls, diners, the events and norms of the day.

What some people see as dated and devoid of what they see as familiar I see as a treasure of history. Not the famous history of Earth shattering events, but simple cultural history. These films are accurate representations and I predict will become more and more important in educational study of culture. It is armchair archeology. Pretty soon we'll have one hundred year old TV shows. While yes, I confess do enjoy the pop ephemera. I really do watching the old fashioned world of The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. So many of their productions were set in old hotels, houses or just outside in the city. You see everything they took for granted and totally forgot about.

While much of what I am talking about is looking into an era that predates me or my memory. The rest of it is revisiting youth. Both versions are just as enjoyable. So if you enjoy history and you seek it in books, documentaries, courses here is one more angle to try. Just sit back and watch old TV with another level of enjoyment. You'll be surprised at what you find.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year 2014

My resolution for 2014 is to keep this blog going
 for all you out there who enjoy reading here
 and who draw from it.
 I wish you all a safe and happy evening
 and a blessed New Year.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Visit To A Little Library

Love the classic feel!
On Christmas Day during my travels up and down the I-91 corridor I took a few minutes and veered off the path of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. I made a little visit to a little library. It has been sometime since I made an official library blog post. Well, I decided to rectify that matter and visited one of the four Little Free Libraries in my immediate vicinity and one of the seven in Western Mass. I wrote about these beauties in an earlier blog.

The day had a been sunny, beautifully cool Winter's Day. I was returning from the annual Christmas day tradition of breakfast at my Aunt Sally's house in the Warsaw of the West aka Chicopee, MA. I did, however, experience a minor crisis in my plans as I had neglected to take the address of the LFL with me. I had the full intention of going there when I had departed in the morning. I just blanked. And worse, my trusty smartphone could not access the LFL website fully, so while I could see the little house marker on the map it just wouldn't click. Luckily I was able to use my Aunt's computer. Crisis averted!

I think I have that Garfield
I knew that the drive there would be easy as I had looked it up the night prior. No surprises as it was a pleasant drive to LFL #5625 in lovely, sleepy Wilbraham, MA home of Friendly's Ice Cream (Where ice cream makes the meal!). I made am astute observation as I was enroute to my destination. I passed right by the Wilbraham Public Library on the way there. Mental note reserved.

This being my first trip to an LFL I really didn't know what to expect. Would there be cars there? Would there be people in the house looking at me looking at the LFL posted near the mailbox? I'm positive that if any encounter were to happen it would have been amicable. These people want visitors! That is why they are stewards of an LFL. Still though the introvert in me felt weird parking my car in front of a strange house. I have no issues with talking to strangers. I'm not that type of introvert. The situation was new and required appropriate caution. I wondered if there was a proper etiquette in the visit to an LFL? I was learning this in the field. As Fate would have it the house, neigh, the street was devoid of activity. I was in the clear.

So I looked at this quaint box on the post with books in it; taking it all in. I reveled in the moment of first contact. I had wanted to participate in this novel booklover's experiment and here I was. I approved heartily. The LFL was clean and well maintained. The Wintertime decorations about the exterior added to the spirit of the day. The selection inside was impressive. I really did not know what would be available. Would the books be the cans of beets and artichokes people donate to shelters when they clean out their cabinets? Not in the least. There was a nice mix of children's to adult leisure reading. I would imagine that depending on the locale and neighborhood would dictate the mix of book. Here this LFL was directed towards a younger readership though there were clearly some books for a more mature palate.

The Rose Ring
Camelot & Vine

I really liked this journey of exploration. I look forward to seeing what the others have to offer when I visit. And yes! Thank you for asking! I did drop off two books: Petrea Burchard's Camelot & Vine and Anne Faye's The Rose Ring. They are books I have read and know that others would enjoy reading themselves.

LFL #5625