“Goethe” Insults My Intelligence

Everybody loves Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, right?  No?  You’re saying your English teachers thought nothing worthwhile has been written outside of the U.S. and Britain since the ancient Greeks?

That’s a shame, but it’s not uncommon.

Of course, this explains why Goethe’s name inspires so many asinine mispronunciations.  I understand that foreign names can be difficult for folks whose life experience has rarely taken them beyond the English language, but you have to wonder if some people need glasses or a brain transplant.  With that in mind, let’s look at some common errors involving our friendly German literary giant:

Girtha:  Do you see an “R” in Goethe?  Of course not.    Girtha is more like “Bertha’s hips have a lot of girtha.”  I’m not trying to be sexist; Goethe’s hips lacked girtha:

Statue of Goethe in Leipzig, showing his not-so-girthy figure.  (Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich)

Statue of Goethe in Leipzig, showing his not-so-girthaic figure. (Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich)

Go eathy:  I’ll go eathy on you too, Mr. Lisp.

Geetha: This sounds like a female geezer.  Goethe may have been a geezer at some point, but female is kind of a stretch.

And if he were Thai, Goethe’s name would be spelled as เกอเธ่.  I could forgive an English speaker for not pronouncing that correctly.

Here’s the correct pronunciation:

Yeah, I know that wasn’t fair; you have to pronounce an ö to get the name right.  Fortunately, no one is policing my blog… unless Vladimir Putin is angry about that gay-themed rainbow image I did of him over the weekend.

Blogger’s Note: If you’re lucky, I’ll be able to field comments on this post.  If I’m lucky, I still have electricity right now.  Goethe is not so lucky because he’s dead.

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Book Spines Insult My Intelligence

Ah, books!

Publishers put considerable effort into a book’s front cover.  If you’re shopping online, the cover becomes the image that gives you a first impression, the image that influences whether you purchase the literary product, the image that scares you away.  It shapes your expectations about what’s inside and it gives you a lifetime of aesthetic pleasure as it sits in prominent display on your bookshelf for years after you spend the relatively few hours reading it.

Not quite.

Once the book goes on your shelf, the spine becomes the only visible part.  If you’re in a library or one of the ever-declining number of brick-and-mortar bookstores, it’s also the spine that first announces and advertises a book’s existence and contents.  (Yeah, I know.  A few books are displayed face-up on tables.  However, those titles tend towards “The Philosophical Meditations of Justin Bieber” and similar drivel.)  And it’s the spine that announces your intelligence to all guests, unless of course you only bought the books to look smart.  In that case, the spines announce your good taste until some incredulous fiend asks you about them.

In my case, the book spines broadcast my superior intelligence and I’d like to share some details with you.

books

This is my image of my books that display my intelligence for all to see.

As you can see, the spines range from purely functional to highly decorative to advertorial to none of the above.  Derek Walcott’s publisher (you can’t miss its presence on the spine) decided to go with dull green and huge lettering for its spine.  You can’t miss that spine on a shelf and you’ll never forget who published it, if you can figure out whether Omeros or Noonday is the publisher.  “Derek Walcott” is obviously the title, the same way Mr. Copperfield wrote a book called “Charles Dickens.”

Cover of "Omeros"

Oh, this clears things up.

Penguin Classics went in the opposite direction on its spine for “Monkey.”  We get tiny print for all text and a small picture for the publisher’s logo.  You could easily miss this title on the shelf, but I guess they decided that their “classics” line needed to look more distinguished and illegible to the low-eyesight crowd than “Year of the Hare,” which features a cute little bunny.  For a book called “Monkey,” how hard would it have been to make that spine stand out like “Hare” does?  Monkeys are cute too, especially wise playful monkeys like the book’s protagonist.  Ironically, the front cover of “Monkey” features the monkey while the hare is reduced to a minor detail on its front cover.  I don’t get it.  Why pull on people’s animal-loving heartstrings on the spine or cover, but not both?  Methinks those publishing executives need to improve their marketing techniques.

“My Name is Red,” subject of a recent post, goes even further with the ornamentation while giving viewers a title they don’t have to tilt their heads to read.  Considering the book’s contents, the pictorial element couldn’t be avoided and my shelf is happy to house a work of art.  I wish “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” had similarly managed to recapture the interesting graphic design from its front cover.

Cover of "Life and Death are Wearing Me O...

Cover via Amazon

Instead, the spine gives us blah and undersize typeface that doesn’t even fit.  So yeah, that was the publisher’s error, not an issue with my cropping… but thank you for assuming I wasn’t at fault.  Quit snickering.

And then there’s the Borges.  Nice and colorful like a neon sign.  And since the publisher and/or translator decided not to render the book’s title in English, having it on my shelf makes me look like I know Spanish.  Excellent!  I support anything that inflates the specter of superior intelligence I can wave over others.

That means the boring and functional “Blind Owl” spine gets lost in the crowd.  That’s a shame because the novel bursts with imagery.  On the other hand, such a narrow book spine might not display the cover’s ornamental font effectively.

The Blind Owl

The Blind Owl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With that font on the spine, I’d expect it to be as legible as “The” and “and” on “The Master and Margarita.”  That would be unfortunate because, in the case of “The Master and Margarita,” the spine looks like it’s for a bartender’s guide to excellence in Mexican beverages.

That said, I think it’s time for me to go master a margarita.  Stay thirsty for knowledge, my friends.

Do Absentee Stories Insult My Intelligence?

If you follow this blog, you may remember this grand photo I posted with no explanation not too long ago:

grand

I’ll discuss the photograph relatively soonish, I think.

In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about a book I’ve been reading: “My Name is Red” by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.  Aside from the novel’s murder mystery aspect, it includes a lot of Islamic philosophy on art… specifically drawing.   And as far as I can tell, it incorporates an Islamic traditionalist point of view. (Yes, other perspectives are included.)  Considering all the death threats made against artists and authors who depict Muhammad, I found this novel extraordinarily relevant to today’s world.

That’s in spite of the novel’s 16th century setting.

(Caveat: I have relatively little knowledge about Islam.  Since the author won a Nobel, I trust that his representation is reasonably accurate and relevant.  I apologize if I am butchering the religion.)

Throughout the novel, much is made of how drawings ought to be created to illustrate something else; in other words, it ought to accompany a story.  Loose pictures with no referent are to be avoided and “style” is considered a flaw.  A horse, for example, ought to be drawn from memory in the style of the Old Masters and any deviation from that ideal is inherently wrong.  Allah’s vision for the world, according to the traditionalist view, is best replicated through a hand that draws from its own memory of having drawn the same horse a thousand times; individual “style” cannot hope to compare.

Thus, blind men are believed to have the greatest artistic vision.

If one draws the horse one sees in a pasture, the drawing will inevitably be flawed.  Moreover, the horse will be insulted by the drawing because the artist is depicting the animal in a less perfect form than Allah sees him in.  Similarly, using a Western ground-level perspective with a horizon reduces a drawing’s quality because it’s not drawn from an overhead perspective as Allah would see it from.

And, if I may extrapolate from this, that’s presumably why visual representations of Muhammad are considered blasphemous.

That’s not to defend those who make the death threats against artists.  I abhor that such a thing is done. Those of us who are not Muslim ought not be compelled to behave according to that religion’s dictates, and a death sentence for irreligious behavior, no matter how blasphemous, is more than a little excessive.  Nevertheless, we benefit from knowing that deeper philosophical reasons exist for the prohibition than an intolerance for religious criticism.  Until Muslims and non-Muslims learn to understand each other, little will improve between us.

And that brings me to my real reason for posting today: the photograph, an image from a technology that has replaced drawings. The original post about the photograph garnered a couple of interesting guesses… and you’ll have to visit the post if you want to see them.

Anyway, what we have here is a picture stripped of its context, much like a drawing of a horse in a pasture that was similarly decontextualized.  And so the question for today is: did the photograph gain or lose stature because I had disconnected it from its origin?  To answer that, you probably need to know where that photo came from.  I shot that photo at the ruins of Pompeii, which a volcanic eruption destroyed in 79 AD.  This was the public bathhouse.

Self-Proclaimed Intellectuals Insult My Intelligence

I took German in college and one of the first readings in the intermediate course was called “A Table is a Table.”  In the story, an old man becomes bored with his surroundings and renames everything in his house.  Some amount of logic drives this; the names for everything are random conventions and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be called something else.

Deutsch: Rose mit Rauhreif / Eiskristallen

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But this isn’t a story about a rose by any other name.  By the end of the tale, the old man has become unable to communicate with anyone because no one shares his vocabulary.  The title serves as a warning: a table is a table.  Although the name “table” is random, the standardization works best.

I’m not opposing change per se, but I do see this pattern in the academic humanities of the past decade or more.  For instance, an “intellectual” is defined as someone who holds a particular set of political and social beliefs, regardless of whether the methods of acquiring those beliefs would legitimately be described as “intellectual.”  One sees this in politics as well; it’s convenient for some activists to conflate homophobia and religious views on sexuality as a way of winning sympathy.  The activists redefined “identity” as being the person and the sexual behavior, meaning that opposition to the sexual behavior is opposition to a person’s identity.  By that logic, the activist claims that the religious person’s call to “hate the sin but love the sinner” is disingenuous.  This causes conflict where none should exist.  (To be fair, there are quite a few religious folks who forget the love part of that statement.  That must be why Pope Francis’ comments are on the topic were so controversial.)

This points to a greater problem: the larger inability of the two sides to dialogue.  No shared vocabulary means no common ground.

A globe (Globus)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that brings me to high school English classes in the U.S.  Specifically, world literature classes.  At many schools, “world literature” emphasizes works by Americans and Brits, plus a couple of continental Europeans (usually ancient Greeks) and usually topped off by Chinua Achebe and perhaps Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

Is part of the world missing here?

Of course it is, unless I add Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  But then again, Hesse was German/Swiss and only wrote about an Asian topic; that means I can’t count him as the token Asian.

So the world is now defined as white people and people who criticize white people.  (Remember, Hispanics are technically Caucasian.)   Does anyone else see a problem here?

The people who recognize the problem often prescribe a curriculum that replicates their opposition’s shortcomings.  The newly added texts add to the criticism of white people by others while eliminating “dead white males.”  If a text doesn’t follow the political ideals behind this curriculum, it is unacceptable because it reinforces current power structures.  Or something like that.

In the end, both sides have redefined “world” and have no common ground.  Unfortunately, they also can’t talk with the rest of the world  because no one seems to want to teach authentic foreign cultural traditions.  That’s too “subversive” for both sides.

To my non-U.S. readers: If you want to know why so few native-born Americans know anything about you, it’s because 49% define “world” as “Western world” while another 49% only define you as intellectual when you’re criticizing the Western world.  You are no longer a table.

This was my two percent’s worth.

Fear of Religions Insults My Intelligence

Ramayana

(Photo credit: chooyutshing)

In case you couldn’t tell, I like to read.  And today, I’d like to share a book that I don’t often see recommended in the US: the Ramayana.

In case you’re not familiar with this book, it’s an epic tale not far removed from things like Beowulf and the storylines of RPG video games.  However, this one comes with a twist; the book jacket explains that the Ramayana is “essentially scripture.”

When one isn’t an adherent of the accompanying religion, one doesn’t usually think scripture will enthrall.   Enlighten perhaps, but not excite or enthrall.

The Ramayana is a gem for people who love fantasy and adventure books but want some brain food thrown in.  Since this is a Hindu work, there’s plenty of philosophy to feed on and, of course, a dose of intercultural understanding for those of you not from the Hindu world.

Not all of the great ancient epics come from the West.

And did I mention that this work runs as long as a Dostoyevsky novel?  Sometimes length is not a bad thing.

I think the missionizing religions would have a much easier time converting people if their sacred texts were as enjoyable to read.  But I suppose you don’t get to write your own holy books.

Go figure.  Some guilty pleasures are good for you… except for one minor detail.  I just wrote an “entertainment” post about scripture, which means I’m going to Hell.

Sale of “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” Insults My Intelligence

BBAWHA library was selling off a few “excess” books and I nabbed this gem at a huge discount.  Libraries hold these sales on occasion to clear their overcrowded shelves of books that few people check out.  Some titles understandably fall out of fashion but I can’t believe they let this one go.

Looking at the cover, you’d think this book would have been remarkably popular among library patrons.  Especially the male ones.  Apparently not.  Not enough pictures, I suppose.

You’d think that literature enthusiasts would have flocked to this book.  After all, the author won a Nobel Prize last year.  Apparently not.  Not a “serious” enough title, I suppose.

You’d think that people looking for a nice deep read wouldn’t be scared off by the 500+ page count.  Apparently not.  Only Russians are allowed to write long novels, I suppose.

You’d think that the title would have enraged some feminists or fundamentalist Christians, both of whom might expect something objectionable in the text and raise the book’s public profile by demanding its removal from the shelves.  Apparently not.  The author is Chinese; sexual content and misogyny don’t matter if they originate from outside of America, I suppose.

You’d think that the feminist-friendly contents of the book would have attracted women readers who enjoy tales of strong female characters.  Apparently not.  A man writing about breasts must be sexist, I suppose.

After all of this, you might be wondering what the book’s about.  I’m not going to tell you.  You’ll have to check it out from the library.

Uh… on second thought, I hope your library hasn’t gotten rid of this book too.

On third thought, I hope your librarians had the insight to acquire this book in the first place.

Goodreads Recommendation Requests Sometimes Insult My Intelligence

Books in the Douglasville, Georgia Borders store.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love Goodreads.  The website is such a simple and brilliant idea.  You bring people together, let them create a list of books they’ve loved and hated, and give them a page where they can request book recommendations from their fellow website users.  (There are other things on the site, but that’s not of concern to me at the moment.)
You might be wondering what problem I could possibly find with that.  So far, I have found none.  However, the requests people make sometimes reveal a lot more about the person than is intended.  If I might paraphrase a recommendation request I’ve seen:

Can anyone recommend a romance novel in which the male protagonist has to overcome many obstacles before finally getting the girl and living happily ever after with her?  The book should also be suspenseful.

Hmmmmm.  I understand that sometimes you’re in the mood to read a particular type of book.  In spite of that, the requesting person is (vaguely) outlining a desired plot and determining in advance what the ending should be.  I know that some people can’t live without their Disney-esque happy endings, but how can a book be suspenseful if you’ve already chosen that book based on how it turns out?

If the person were looking for Shakespeare or something substantially artistic or otherwise well-crafted, it might be fascinating to see how the chosen plot is carried through; I could understand such a request.   I’d still question how much suspense would result, but I’d understand it.

And then there’s this:

I want to read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

For requests like this, it’s pretty easy to suggest something.  Of course, I’m thinking of the “Hooked on Phonics” workbook.  Maybe these people couldn’t understand the instructions because their reading skills need help.  Or maybe they’re announcing that they’ve graduated to grown up books.

And another:

I can’t remember the name of the book but I read it in high school.  The main character was a young blond woman and she fell in love with her knight in shining armor, and then they moved far away where they opened a bakery.  Does anyone know the name of this book?

This resembles the first offending request type, but it tends to garner fewer responses.  If the request were targeting a well known book, one would hope that the requester could find the information on their own; instead, these descriptions resemble a million others.  Since these are presumably not well known books, there’s probably a good reason why the requester can’t remember information such as such as the title, author, or uniquely identifying details that hundreds of other books don’t share.  Odds are, the book was crap.  Or maybe the requester was stoned the first time around.

One final request type:

I’d like to read a book from Japan.

Oh, where to begin?  Would this person like a romance novel, war memoir, classic No drama, haiku collection, or maybe something else?  A book’s origin alone will not determine whether you like it.  Not much in Japan is so overwhelmingly Japanese that its Japanese-ness (Japanicity?) overwhelms every other aspect of the book.  Is bibliostereotyping a word?  On the other hand, I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on someone who realizes that Japan creates more things than cars, electronics, and anime.  This person already belongs to the smartest 5% of the population.

Nevertheless, it’s always encouraging to see people choosing to read instead of watch TV, no matter what book they choose.  I shudder to think what the average TV addict’s Goodreads requests would look like:

Can anyone recommend a good DVD insert?

That request will surely be brought to you by the same people who want to know what issue of Playboy has the best articles.