Beginnings: Sylvia Whitman and Shakespeare and Company

This short film on Sylvia Whitman, owner of the iconic bookstore Shakespeare and Company, is part of a larger series titled “Beginnings,” a project by Chiara Clemente exploring the “early inspirations” of various artists. I came across it a few days back on the New Yorker’s Book Bench site and thought I would share. It’s a wonderful little film. Just the thought of sleeping amongst all of those books as a child…

Enjoy!

The Curiosity of Children

My spring break has officially began this week (one of the perks of being a teacher), and in celebration, I took my daughter to one of my favorite places in this city, the science museum and planetarium. Granted, this little building is a pretty sorry excuse for a science museum, most of it is horribly outdated (exhibits remain from when I was a child), but I didn’t think my three-year old daughter would mind.

This museum was very near my home when I was growing up, and it was my favorite weekend destination, which gratefully my grandparents were always more than happy take me. I would spend hours in the main gallery, getting my hands dirty with “science” with all their interactive exhibits, and then more hours in the planetarium, gazing up at the projected night sky, memorizing the locations of all the stars, planets, and constellations for the month.  The best part of spending my days there was that I would always leave feeling as if I understood the world around me just that much better. I would walk into the parking lot looking at everything with a slightly more critical and keen eye, and that feeling would carry me well into the week. And when the sun went down, the curiosity that was piqued in the planetarium would be given free rein as I looked into the night sky and was awed by the sheer enormity of it all.

Madison looking into a zoetrope.

So with all of that in mind, I took my daughter to spend the day at the same museum, which, as I mentioned above, hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years. She loved it. She hopped and ran from exhibit to exhibit, trying her hand at all of the hands-on exhibits, asking for explanations, her eyes brightening with understanding every time she “got it.” She was mesmerized by fluid dynamics, spent exceptionally long periods of time staring at close up images of our planets, and even built her own Lego solar-powered car. Watching her eyes widen with excitement when we walked into the main gallery and she took it all in was wonderful in and of itself, but seeing her curiosity and awe take flight really made it all worth while. Not to mention that seeing and experience everything in that little museum again through her eyes rekindled my sense of child-like wonder.

As we were walking out, her new orange dinosaur in hand, she told me that she wanted to return every day. That night she asked to take out the telescope, and although it was cloudy, we did get a good look at the moon. As she looked through the telescope and I looked at her, I realized just  how lucky I am to have a daughter who is so bright and so curious. It was a beautiful day and it made me think of what Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay “On Life,”

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves!

Day 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.

Sunday Funnies #10 … with an apology

Once again, from the folks at Calamities of Nature

I also wanted to add that I apologize for the lack of posts this week. Between work and other obligations, I’ve barely had time to sit, much less to write. With Spring Break coming up this week, however, I do fully intend to catch up.

The Most Astounding Fact

Late last night, I received a link to this video from one of my former students, and as my daughter and I have been spending a great deal of time looking at the heavens through our telescope lately, it seemed perfectly appropriate and too good not to pass along.

In this short clip Neil deGrasse Tyson answers the question, “What is the most astounding fact that you can share with us about the Universe?” His answer reminds us that we a part of this magnificent and incredible universe… all of us. It’s the same message that Sagan had when he said that “we are star-stuff,” or when said that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. We are creatures of the cosmos and always hunger to know our origins, to understand our connection with the universe.”

When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.

So as Jack Horkheimer used to say “keep looking up!” And when you do, feel big.

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Today Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Geisel Seuss, would have turned 108 years old. I have always loved him. There is something about so magical, imaginative, and whimsical about his stories and his animations that captured my interest as a child and has kept me captivated ever since. In fact, as I left the doctor’s office the day that I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter, I went straight to the bookstore and bought her Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

On and on you will hike, And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up of course, as you already know.

You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact

And remember that Life’s a great balancing act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.

And never mix up your right foot with your left.

As an adult I discovered the “secret” art of Dr. Seuss, which is just as whimsical and playful, but with a definite satirical edge, and certainly not meant for children. Here is one of my favorite pieces from this collection.

"Green Cat with Lights"

He also once wrote a book filled with nude women, The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family (1939), a bizarre take on the Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom legends. The book was met with a less-than-warm reception, and its failure was one of the reasons that Seuss devoted himself to writing children’s books. He later admitted, “I’d rather write for kids. they’re more appreciative; adults are obsolete children, and the hell with them.”

So happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! And thank you for inspiring both children and adults, and for showing us a world full of wonder and fantasy.