rough notes

Back to basics.

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Long summer days give the appearance that there is more time in the day. What we do with that time perhaps marks us as a person. My summer days are filled with a back to basics routine. Reading old books, re-learning declensions or analyzing introductions and criticisms. It sounds high and mighty. Perhaps it is. I don’t take myself too seriously when I do, though. Its a pursuit of pleasure that drives me.

When I’m feeling down, or stressed out, I eventually go through a period of contemplation where I pull back from the world. This period is followed by a will to rid myself of my worries, or to cleanse myself of that which got me down in the first place. I usually do this by falling into a back to basics routine. Its nice to draw back from our mundane world by reading Michael Alexander’s introduction to his translation of Beowulf, for instance. Its great pleasure-reading.

Why the hell have I picked up my old copy of Beowulf this week? I’m a little unsure. Well, not. I’m rather distraught by too many things. That doesn’t matter though. I’d rather talk about reading Beowulf, or flipping through my old copy of Wheelock’s. There was a time I could read latin with ease. It was basic elementary latin, mind you, but it is something I am proud to say I could have done. I could also parse old english fairly well, and knew well enough that with a little practice I could really have a go at Beowulf in OE. I can’t really do either anymore, though I do like to try from time to time.

I’m sometimes bothered by the fact that I’m interested in things so far removed from today’s culture, or from anything that most anyone else has a passing fancy in. Maybe that’s why I’m aloof and enjoy solitude. Or perhaps the other way around. Whatever, that doesn’t matter too much. I knows what I likes, and I likes what I knows, I guess.

Many, many years ago, in a galaxy rather far away, for that matter, I was a first-year student. I was enrolled in a reading course that covered the greatest hits of the western canon starting with the Greeks. The first text I ever read (I consider this course to be the true start to my reading life – all else before then was like watching the shadows in the cave) was Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, I believe. Lots of fun – gods, ravens, rocks, livers, etc. It was a great tale about grounding your moral compass. Well maybe not – you can call it whatever you like. A couple texts into the course though, we hit Beowulf. I think it was the beginning of October. I read it with a passion. I was completely in love with Beowulf, Grendel, his mother, the Geats, Hrothgar, etc, etc. I was entranced to finally see a real dragon, a real monster. This wasn’t fantasy, this was the real thing! I clung to it.

A week or so after reading it, a bunch old highschool buddies and I gathered at a friend’s house. It must have been Thanksgiving – I can’t remember why we gathered there, because aside from the host (iWill), there was maybe The Stonemonkey who I really really wanted to hang out with at that moment. That first term wasn’t a very good first term – any friends I thought I had (I was unsure what friendship meant back then. cf. solitude) and was trying to cope with all the issues a student in his late teens had to face. At any rate, we gathered at Will’s house, and, like I warned him I would, I brought along every goddamn book I bought that term. It was perhaps the first time one of us stared the other in the eye and said “Look at my books!”

I was so happy that evening. The textbooks I had purchased and had started to read were a testament to the type of person I wanted to be, whatever type of person that is. I really enjoyed that reading course, and it gave me pleasure to share the class with my friends by trying to elict debates, discussion or just plain arrogance from them. Will seemed alright with it. He looked over the texts, and like kids in a schoolyard with O-Pee-Chee hockey trading cards, declared, “got it, got it, read it, need it, got it, don’t want it, don’t know it, need it, got it,” or something close to that. I’m sure you get the point. Others looked on and joined the fray as well. I wasn’t the centre of attention, and for a passing moment, didn’t want to be. In that backpack were the humble beginnings to my library. Those books were centre stage. And they were mine.

Looking back on it now, I didn’t realize how much of a good thing that programme I was enrolled in was to my psyche, or my learning. I abandoned it, twice. Its a regret, for sure. But I can get on. I can still find the reading list and read the books on it. I called the course my $700 Book Club. That is, the cost of tuition at the time. I can still read them without the tuition.

I’m a little unsure what to do with my life at the moment. I sometimes feel like I’m backed into a corner, and am forced to make some decisions, real quick. Maybe I’m looking for a perpetual summer afternoon, where I can leisurely read and analyze and really make the day mine. Its foolhardy to think that way, I know. Its a dream more than anything else. I’m certain we all have a dream similar to that – to do exactly what we want to do, whenever we want to do it, forever. In the meantime, I do have to come up with some ideas here, to keep myself going, to remain lively and happy. Often I think it would be absolutely incredible to have my own bookshop, where I can stock whatever I want (read: only what I want to stock). Such a bookstore could get off the ground, but I don’t think it would be much of a success. I would likely spend the rest of my days worrying about the next shipment and hoping I can sell enough Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to stay afloat. And believe me, there aren’t many people who are interested in purchasing an A-S Chronicle anthology.

In the mean time, I’m going to take some small steps, and worry about those basics again. When I finish the Alexander’s introduction to Beowulf, I’ll re-read the text. Maybe I’ll compare it to Heaney’s translation, which was published (with a side-by-side OE translation) several years ago with much fanfare. Heaney is definitely where its at, but my old Penguin Classics edition of Beowulf is reserved a special place in my heart. Its one of my first loves. And its been a while since I’ve read it. Penguin Classics Beowulf deserves some quality time this summer, and I’m bound to make good on it.


Written by mitchellirons

June 18, 2004 at 9:50 pm

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