This Month's Reading - April 2015

Haven't read all that many pages this month. Still pecking away at the three tomes I've started, Don Quixote, Plutarch's Lives, and The Bible, but most of my time this month has been taken with trying to earn some Microsoft Certifications. Well, that and I discovered Marvel Heroes, which is like Diablo, but with Spider-Man. Naturally, a lot of my time disappeared. However, I did read a number of very short works, starting with two classics of youthful fantasy, Ursula K Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and CS Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet.

Reading the two together makes a good case study in the two ways to go about world building. Namely, the right way and the wrong way. Le Guin is a grand master of world building. The world of Earthsea is patiently, enthrallingly constructed. Full of cultures and peoples, histories and mysteries. Her story exists fully inside the world she has constructed. Conversely, the world of Malacandra presented by Lewis is constructed the wrong way round. It is a world that exists solely for the sake of the story he wants to tell. The peoples and cultures are thin, transparently constructed things made to allow Lewis the chance to rattle off his social critique. Which is not to say Out of the Silent Planet is bad. The adventure is not entirely spoiled by Lewis's cloying moral lessons and his writing is frequently fantastic, particularly the segments describing intersolar space not as a cold, dead place but rather filled with light and heat. A beautiful synthesis of language and actual science. But, unfortunately, while space might not be his world comes across as rather cold and lifeless, particularly when compared against Le Guin's living, breathing worlds.

In addition to those two I started on some classics. This month, drunk off my first paycheck, I purchased the complete Penguin Little Black series. A set of 80, tiny books released by Penguin in celebration of their 80th Anniversary.  Comprised of poetry, short stories, and selections from larger works, each Little Black books is only about 60 pages. So as a fun, long term project I decided to read the whole set in chronological order. Since no Mesopotamian or Egyptian texts were included that means starting with the Greeks, and I've so far read the selections of Homer, Aesop, and Sappho. The Homer collected here is a couple short selections from The Odyssey, and Odysseus's wild antics are as entertaining as ever. Included here is the time he got a guy drunk, told him his name was Nobody, then stabbed him in the eye. Those wacky Greek sailors.
The short little parables of Aesop are surprisingly depressing. The ancient world was far less forgiving than ours. Many revolve around people having natural characteristics that cannot be changed. According to Aesop wicked people are born wicked and cannot be changed, and great peoples are simply born great and we should not waste time trying to join them. It's a perspective at odds with our cultures devotion to the ideals of redemption and personal growth. But, sometimes I worry that in some ways the ancients were closer to the truth than ourselves. Perhaps redemption and growth are comforting lies and we're more prisoners of our character than we like to believe. Maybe, but I think not.
Finally, Sappho. You may know her as the lady who gave lesbians their name after her lady-on-lady poetry so shocked the Victorians who rediscovered it. Strangely they didn't give the orientation her name, but rather that of her home island of Lesbos, although Sapphic is still an adjective for what you'd expect. In a more sensible world the term probably would have gone to bisexuality since at least a couple of her poems are about hot dudes, but I guess the Victorians really only focused on the bits that made them drop their monocles.