Friday, February 3, 2012

January Reading


Here's what I read in January

It's hard to believe that I've been writing these what I read this month posts for an entire year now, but I have.  Not a lot of people read these, but they have focused my reading and kept me disciplined more than anything since I was assigned my last term paper.  So long live the monthly posts!

January 2012 started off slowly.  I picked up my wife's copy of The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, which has always been one of her favorites.  I thought I'd give it a shot.


At the same time that I started it, I was collecting and organizing books for the library I am creating at school (more on that in the near future.)  At the bottom of one of the bags was a copy of The Sword in the Stone, the first book in The Once and Future King.  It had a much cooler cover and was a more-manageable 250 pages (The Once and Future King tops 600), so I went for it.

It was impossible for me to get far into this book.  I was hoping for a captivating recounting of Arthurian legend, but what I got was a rather boring boy Arthur and a Merlyn who annoyed me with everything he did.   (Except for the falconry.  That part was cool.)  The anachronistic touches that T.H. White adds to his narration came off as irritating rather than clever, and pretty soon my interest in the book stalled.  I didn't want to give up on the book, though, as I had already invested quite a bit of time.  But one day I caught myself passing over The Sword in the Stone in favor of a Rachel Ray magazine.  When you find yourself doing that, folks, it means you have officially lost interest in your book and need to pick a new one.

Which brings us to the first books that I read in the new year.


1. The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell


Back when I was teaching my mythology class, we would do a unit on the hero's journey.  I took Campbell's idea of the monomyth (pictured below), pared it down to seven steps so that my students could grasp it, and then used it as a framework to teach the myths of Hercules, Perseus, and, ultimately, Pinocchio.  It was a successful part of a successful class, but I did not know anything more of Joseph Campbell.


When this book appeared in my pile of donated books, I snatched it right up.  I was surprised to learn that Joseph Campbell was not, in fact, a Victorian Englishman, as I had imagined him.  It turns out he was American!  And he lived until 1987!

This book is a conversation between Campbell and public-television mainstay Bill Moyers, which was televised in the mid 1980s and is readily available on youtube.  These two men have an extended conversation about myths, symbols, archetypes, stories, rituals, dreams, and the consciousness that connects us all.  

Reading this book, I assumed that it was a literary collaboration between the two, and that they probably spent a long time working out their questions and answers, revising their work, and editing it until it sparkled.  I mean, there was no way that two human beings could actually speak so eloquently and cogently about such a topic, and at such great lengths.

But then I watched the videos .  That's them talking, and this book is just a transcript of the conversation.  Brilliant.

So, what is this book about?  This book addresses the larger questions.  Why are we here?  What is the point?  Why do we do the painful things that we do?  What is the meaning behind the everyday rituals of our lives?  How can one live blissfully?  What are all of these stories about?  What is life and what is death?  The Power of Myth pulls back the curtain, to use a tired expression, and shows you the underlying forms that surround us, whether it be the eagle on the back of the dollar bill, the cross hanging in your church, or the tattoo on your barista's wrist.  It is all linked.

I am not a spiritual person, and I look for my answers in a library, not a church.  The Power of Myth showed me that my intellectual efforts were not different from other people's spiritual efforts; they are, in fact, the same.  The intellectual quest is a spiritual quest.  There is a religious text that you can trust wholeheartedly, Campbell tells us.  There is a self-help text that tells you all you need to know about yourself.  And that text is simply the entirety of human literature.  It's right there, waiting for you discover it.

If all religious fundamentalists could read this book, the world would be a saner place.

Here is the last thing I will say about this book, and then I will leave it.  Think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana's friends come to visit him while he's teaching his class.  You know the scene.  There's the girl with the words "LOVE" and "YOU" written on her eyelids.  


So then class ends, and Indy's friends start telling him about the medallion that they're looking for, and all of a sudden, Indy's like Wait!  I have this awesome book that tells you everything you need to know! It has all the answers!

And then he goes to his shelf and pulls down this enormous leather-bound book and flips through it, and then the creepy music starts to play in the background, and he opens up to a page with a terrifying lithograph in it, and he starts telling them about the Staff of Ra and how it can melt people's faces.

Remember that scene?  Well, I always really, really wanted that book.  And the closest thing I've ever found to it is The Power of Myth.


2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin


I read this book.  It was not so bad, I guess.




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