Book Love…

The four textbooks for my online European History course arrived early Friday morning.  I was sitting around in my blue fleece polar bear pajama pants, drinking coffee when the doorbell rang. Besides the fact that my mom and uncle used to hit the floor and hide when unexpected guests arrived on their driveway, I can’t really explain the adverse reaction the doorbell causes in our house.  My fully dressed son looked out the window and seeing the Canada Post truck, ran for the hills. “C’mon Ben!  I’m in my pajama pants!” I pleaded. “Just answer the door!”  I heard the lock on his bedroom door click.  I’m recounting the experience as therapy today. Thank you for listening.

The books were taking over the shop, climbing walls, settling into crevice and cranny, as if they were alive.

What is the enchantment of new (and of course, old) books? I already own more books than I may ever read, and yet can barely resist the lure of Amazon, the book aisle in Superstore, local bookstores or other people’s libraries.  One of the most exciting things about my European History course is its four textbooks.  Four!  Good books become objects of meaning. They mark the history of our personal growth, becoming trophies of new knowledge and insight.  I like to keep my books in full view, as visible road maps not only of where I’ve been, but where I’m going.  They spill from bookcases, sitting in piles on table and floor, reminding me of who I am.

swerveLast summer I was introduced Stephen Greenblatt’s, Pulitzer prize winning book,  The Swerve.  Greenblatt, a professor of Humanities at Harvard,  tells the tale of Poggio Bracciolini, a 14th century Italian scholar who went on a treasure hunt for lost manuscripts in French, Swiss and German monastic libraries. Through good timing and good fortune, Poggio eventually found an important manuscript, the De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). This first century  BC poem, is written by Lucretius, explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience.  Seen as the most dangerous of ideas, the poem suggests that the universe functions without the aid of god(s), and that religious fear is damaging to human life.  In richly poetic language, it also explores Epicurean atomic physics and questions of the mind, soul and thought.  Greenblatt’s thesis in The Swerve is that the rediscovery of this manuscript shaped the thinking of the early Renaissance.  He argues that this swerve in thought also influenced Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein, eventually leaving its trace on the Declaration of Independence.

I found The Swerve a sparkling read. Some scholars and critics didn’t agree with me though. Some thought that Greenblatt was molding history to fit his personal ends (as if that was something new), criticizing his portrayal of the Renaissance as ‘an outburst of light after a long medieval darkness.’ Others saw it as an anti religious polemic, reacting with swift indignation, even suggesting Greenblatt’s award be rescinded. But the general public mostly received The Swerve as a brilliant work of non-fiction.

As for me, I swept up in the book hunter’s pursuit of ancient manuscripts in dusty monasteries and scriptoriums. Equally so in the tales of Herculaneum libraries by the sea, papyrus rolls and the academia of ancient Greece.  I was inspired to follow-up with Greek, Renaissance and Medieval art history courses, and this summer’s European history course.  I’m sure over time, I’ll reach my own educated conclusions on “How the World Became Modern” but I’m grateful for the introduction to some very compelling ideas.  If you happen to be interested,  History of Medieval and Renaissance Italy professor William Caferro offers the most balanced review of The Swerve I’ve come across.

book urnHistory needs storytellers, weavers of words that spark our imagination and interest. Otherwise some of us would never stick our big toe in its luminous waters and what a shame that would be.  Maybe one day I’ll become so learned and crotchety and stickler-ish that I’ll be offended by The Swerve too.  But I’ll probably keep it, it’s settled in amongst the library of art and history books in the roman garden urn in my living room.  And  besides, you know what they say about a truly great library…

truly great

Cathedrals of the Mind

My first semester as a full-time student is drawing to a swift close.  I’m not sure I’ve ever done something so challenging and personally gratifying.  Yesterday I was working in the kitchen, talking out loud to myself about the chronological order of Byzantine emperors. How strange this all still is.   When did i start talking to myself about Byzantine Emperors rather than home related projects, personal issues or worse, cancer?  It’s incredibly empowering to understand and own a new body of knowledge.

A few weeks ago I discovered that the white ceramic statue of an enormous hand making an A-OK sign in my living room, is a satire of the enormous hand of the statue of Constantine.  Before Constantine moved the centre of power from Rome to Byzantium in 326 ad, he built a 12 metre high statue of himself in Rome.  Once relocated to the new capital,  he erected a massive 50 metre high column, and in emperor like fashion, crowned it with another monument of himself and renamed the city Constantinople, after himself.  Slightly narcissistic in my opinion, but the implications of that move have changed the course of history.  To understand that and to recognize the significance of a piece of art I previously had no context for, is quite amazing to me.  Who am I becoming?

constantine collage
1. Fragments of Colossus of Constantine Statue 2. Close up of hand 3. Satire of hand

This morning I received the final exam study list for my art history class.  Ever had the feeling that the universe has unexpectedly smiled upon you?  Among the forty works of art and architecture on the list are the two emperors and architectural works I’ve spent the last two weeks composing a paper on!  What an unfamiliar form of excitement!  I really never expected, even as little as a year ago, to have arrived at this new place of mind.

I’ve been researching the history, art and architecture of the Hagia Sophia and the Pantheon these past weeks.  It’s hard to capture the magic of them without posting an entire research paper.  But to give you a brief idea, the Hagia Sophia is a cathedral in old Constantinople, current Istanbul, built on the poetry of light.  The Pantheon is a temple in Rome built on the often unrecognized beauty and symbolism of geometry.  Poetry and Math.  Are those not amazing concepts to build cathedrals and architecture upon?

Both of these buildings have long and tumultuous histories.  They were originally conceived by people who never lived to see their completion in their current forms.  Built and rebuilt on top of the same site, sometimes the original monuments were destroyed by fire, lightening, or had all their resplendent artistic fittings stolen by other governments. Sometimes entire cathedrals were seized by invaders and converted into the architecture of another culture, another religion.  And yet in spite of this, thousands of years later, they both still stand as a testament to the enduring power of an idea.

I feel enormously small in light of the world I’ve stepped into these past months.  But as my intellectual world has expanded, I’ve found myself almost unwittingly constructing new mental architecture, or my own cathedral of the mind.  It’s a heady experience, one I highly recommend.  It seems almost crazy to me now that formal education is viewed primarily as belonging to the ‘college age’ population of late teens and twenties.  Of course, it’s challenging to find time and to finance education later in life.  However, an older generation benefits equally from the intellectual engagement that comes with formal education.  In my experience, it’s promoted a sense of wellness, confidence and renewed wonder well worth its time and tuition price tag.

In the celebrated words of Nike (who was, by the way, a Greek goddess representing victory before the athletic company hijacked her persona) if you’re considering further education, “Just do it”.  There’s a cathedral of the mind awaiting.

(This post is dedicated to Scott, who is my major impetus in the discovery of cathedrals, both real and of the mind.  Thank you.)

The Lost Cycle of Time?

Ancient Origins has a fascinating article today titled, The Lost Cycle of Time.  One of the things I’ve been observing studying art history is that suddenly great civilizations disappear, only to be replaced by civilizations whose art and culture has regressed.  This makes me ask ‘why?’  With the gaps in recorded history, ‘why?’ isn’t an easy question to address.  What, I wonder, influences a golden age of discovery, like those of the ancient Greeks or the Renaissance?  Maybe we could include the computer age in this as well?

I’m by no means an expert, only a question asker, a ponderer.  Walter Cruttenden’s article is intriguing as it attempts to explain the effect of the cosmos on collective consciousness.  This consciousness, he suggests, may explain the ‘why’ of our historical periods of great discovery, the rise and fall of great empires.

Perhaps there’s another explanation.  The world is filled with unanswerable questions.  But today I’m in the fifth dimension, singing ‘The Age of Aquarius’.  Let the sun shine in.  🙂