Browsing Books: Searching for Merlin Edition

Day’s book has also been released under the title The Quest for King Arthur

My mother used to say that the passions we most care about come to us by accident. That certainly was true of my affection for Merlin, smaller stories of whom intrigued me through childhood as I learned of Arthur, as well as when a set of books my mother purchased—and I initially ignored—mystically beckoned, revealing to me not more of Arthur, but rather the wizard I really wanted to know. I’d never experienced anything like him—whether within words, my own imagination, or memories of a past so distant their familiarity still remained somewhat vague, though shimmering.

Not unlike that day all those years ago, something summoned me recently. I reached into our armoire and pulled out the box set of a television series, The Adventures of Merlin, my son and I had “discovered” about eight years ago. I’d had no intention of re-visiting the show, yet into the Xbox the disk went and drawn I was back into the saga of someone I was first entranced by as a small child. Catching me unaware, Merlin once more drew me close, reminding me of his presence, and perhaps that I hadn’t been paying quite enough attention. He had never been demanding before; perhaps it was my own guilt I felt. Whatever the case, I made plans to seek out more to either revitalize my awareness or add to it. I immediately broke out my unfinished copy of Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin and made a weekend date with the library.

As it turns out, perhaps the best items are at other branches, though that remains to be seen; I’ve requested a few items and will assess them when they arrive. What I did obtain, though not exactly what I’d been hoping for, will at least get me started as I commence my next journey with Myrddin Emrys, whose misted path I hope might become clear and brightly colored.

The Search for King Arthur (David Day) – I’d actually borrowed this book before, and it is one of several from today focused on the king, but the only one in which Merlin has his own chapter. Of course, all the major characters receive one but, not having found precisely what I’d been seeking, this will perhaps best move me forward. Few volumes focus entirely and exclusively on Merlin, for he and the others are woven together in a complex of symbolism and extended metaphor, but it is certainly possible to pick through the threads and re-discover much of what has retreated to the backs of our minds.

Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth (Joseph Campbell) – Compiled from lectures Campbell presented over the course of his lifelong journey studying mythology and “the larger patterns and meanings revealed in these myths.” Containing metaphors for the human stages of growth, Campbell believed they exemplified the development of humanity and discusses reflections, from all over the world, on the stories.

In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages (Max Adams) – Seemingly linked in theory to Campbell’s ideas, Adams’s volume is “[a] cultural exploration of the Dark Age landscapes of Britain that poses a significant question: Is the modern world simply the realization of our ancient past?” While it does not appear to speak at all of Merlin et al., except possibly in passing, I was attracted to the travel angle and the author’s focus within the locales of their ancient past. “Part travelogue, part expert reconstruction, In the Land of Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks, knights, and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of Britain’s history.” For me, much of this excitement stems from the possibilities of understanding regarding these more ordinary people within the times we still speak of today.

Finding Arthur: The True Origins of the Once and Future King (Adam Ardrey) – Arthur is really from Scotland, Adams posits (a claim he also makes for Merlin); the victors wrote the story and that’s why Scottish Arthur has been erased and recast as an English Christian king. I’m pretty sure I have borrowed this book before but never got a chance to read it; today I picked it up because I’m certainly open to reading what’s behind his assertions, and I probably should. It is true, after all, that the victors write the history. I confess to having heard of this theory before but not really giving it much airtime. It sounds a bit fantastic and, truth be told, I’m a little concerned it will come off as conspiracy theory-type reading. At the same time, truth is stranger than fiction, so who knows? I probably shouldn’t worry about whether I end up agreeing or not, liking  it or not. It’s a dive into history, which is always fascinating. However, I may switch over to the Merlin volume instead, given my limited reading time and how I’m currently needing to divvy it up by topic.

Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Guy Halsall) – My dilemma related to the previous book entry, and indeed the book itself, can safely be ignored, according to this author. He doesn’t call Ardrey’s book out by name, at least not in the blurb, but does discount works that claim to reveal “the truth” behind the “historical” Arthur, who is largely a figment of the imagination anyway. I am a little intrigued at what might be the truth that is much more fascinating, as per jacket description, though flipping through the book brought me to one page with the following sentence: “Unless some important new written sources are discovered, which is unlikely, the construction of a detailed narrative political historical account is quite out of the question and always will be.” This seems rather restrictive to me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about history is that it often surprises us (perhaps because we fail to heed its warnings). It also reminds me a bit too much to Allison Weir’s assertion, in the opening pages of The Princes in the Tower, that we are unlikely to ever gain better evidence than what we already have regarding Richard III’s involvement (her “evidence” being laughably suspect, but that’s another story), and gives me a bit of an allergic reaction. Still, we’ll approach with caution and see where it takes us.

Browsing Books: 35 + Books Everyone Lies About Having Read

People lie about reading books!!??

Ha ha, yes, books seem to be nearly a number one topic to lie about, and what’s even funnier is that so many totally dig in even when their discussions begins to reveal signs of major fibbery, such as buzz words or phrases that come off as parroted without the ability to elaborate, or being unable to talk even a little bit about what they liked or didn’t about a particular story.

Books also seem to be one of the best topics for quickly making one’s way into a rabbit hole, and this interweb excursion was no exception. I came across a page called  “35 + Books Everyone Lies about Having Read.”

It turns out there are waaaay more than thirty-five here, so apparently lying about numbers is a thing as well. OK, so it says “+” but when the list just keeps going with no apparent end, the “35” becomes  a little misleading. No worries, it was fun looking through them anyway, and I decided to share some because I wanted to chatter about them a little. Of course, when you see the list, you’ll understand why I had a limitation, which I decided to be fifteen. I also realized that if I chose titles I really loved, I’d end up with a list of books that would be little more than reading recommendations, with no added color, funny memories, poignant call backs or any of those associations that come with remembering the background behind books in your past.

I may do this again, but for now we’ll see where it takes us. I wonder what books on this list you all have read, and what memories they kick up?

And without further ado, the fifteen, with the titles I’ve read in green font~

To Kill a Mockingbird* (Harper Lee) † – I’ve heard people say it’s overrated. That may or may not be true, I only know that I read it in elementary school, and remember very little. I believe I was in sixth grade (I remember the classroom), and at that point in our lives I don’t think was too young to be teaching us about the book’s subject matter, so I’m wondering if the style didn’t really suit me. Or maybe I was just a lazy reader. In fourth grade we were required to summarize book reports on those giant index cards, and I recall at least one book I liked (The Cricket in Times Square), though toward the enterprise as a whole I must have been mostly indifferent, because I don’t recall any great love of picking up a book. In fifth grade The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe pretty much rocked my world, though I still have no recall for rushing home to be able to read (although Nancy Drew might have been at about that time). To be honest, I never really loved school itself until about seventh grade (or was it eighth?) English class, so while the message was important, I might have just been unready for the vehicle in which it was delivered.

Diary of a Young Girl* (Anne Frank) † – Eighth grade English class covered this book and its context in great measure. Our teacher was Jewish and when I look back at this time I marvel at how she was able to present all this as objectively as she did. It definitely played a role in my later choice (in high school) to choose World War II as my specific historical era of concentration (everyone had to choose one), and after graduation I continued to read oodles of books about it, complete with topics that shot off in many directions, including those such as Hans and Sophie Scholl, nucleus of an anti-Hitler group called the White Rose, who remain an inspiration to me today.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer* (Mark Twain) Oh my gosh I love this book! I can still remember our seventh-grade English teacher beginning her discussion about this story, which I was sure I would hate, probably because I perceived it as a book for boys. She read most, or perhaps even all, of it aloud to us, doing the voices really well and inserting perfectly co-ordinated commentary at key moments. I didn’t love in Huckleberry Finn, quite so much, which really bummed me out because the love I had for Tom Sawyer was so unusual for me—as I said, I hadn’t been a great lover of books at that point.

 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling) Read it! Who hasn’t? Well, I know a lot of people aren’t into Harry, which I just don’t get. Who knows, maybe they say the same about my ideas re: vampires, but whatever the case, I have read and re-read this series multiple times, including just recently. I can still remember my sweet little Turtle dumpling at three years old, the day after we had gone out at midnight to collect the newest—I think it was the last book, and he was still excited about “livin’ life large,” being out so late the night before. He was sitting up on my bed, his adorable little legs stretched out in front of him and pleading with me, “Please, Mummy, please, can we speed up our reading lessons, I want to read this book by myself soooooo baaaaaad!” Heh heh, yeah, he called me “Mummy” back then. Not really sure why, but it was kinda cute.

Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – Heard of it, sounds boring, read the blurb, completely uninterested, change my mind.

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) – This is the book set in the dustbowl era, is it not? Jeez, I’ll  feel really stupid if I’m wrong about that! I have no clue what it’s about but I do recall wanting to read it not too many years ago. Push me, somebody!

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) – Ohhhh, I own it but haven’t yet read it. Someone recommended it to me and in a recent re-read of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran she discusses going over it with her students. It doe sound a bit mid-century-ish, a time from when not many authors really grab my attention and it even seems rather dry. But I’m game for this particular one because the discussion amongst Nafisi’s students—whose fight for the freedom to discuss literature as mature adults made me weep, for their own situation and the idiotic descent my own country is engaging—brought to the fore angles that are at play today. I’ve never met Nafisi’s students, but I love them, and feel I owe it to them to read a book they fought to hard for their own right to read—a fight that may one day even favor our own similar struggle, brought on if we don’t start acting like adults once more, capable and willing to discuss challenging ideas.

The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)Oh gads, yeah. I believe it was sixth grade? I remember our teacher, Mrs. Smith, who had beautiful black and silver hair, and she was the first teacher who really made the effort to get students to be aware teachers were normal beings just like us. Sometimes she got tongue tied when she read aloud, but just kept going, which also cued us into the idea that, wow, teachers aren’t perfect creatures either! We loved her all the more for it. Anyway, in college I built up a beautiful collection of Hawthorne for my at-home library, though I no longer have them. Lost to a thief, sadly.

1984* (George Orwell)I remember watching the movie long after I had read the book, going into it thinking, “Really, I just remember a razor shortage. Nothing else.” If memory serves, they didn’t mention that in the film, but Julia had hairy armpits, which I guess was meant to hint at that tidbit. I wasn’t aware at the time of anything called dystopian fiction, and when I later learned what that genre was, it never really occurred to me to remember 1984 as under its umbrella. In fact, for a very long time I avoided it because, truth be told, it’s a little terrifying to contemplate living the lives some of these books depict.

The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)Never read it, which surprises my son to no end, given how much I love Narnia. I fell asleep watching the first film and have had an instinctive aversion to it since then. He’s slowly working on talking me away from that, so we’ll see where this leads.

The BibleI’m embarrassed to confess I’ve never read the whole book cover to cover. Also, that some of it is so very dense I get discouraged. I don’t know all the history or culture of the different eras, either, so at times something indicative of some particular circumstance flies right over my head. I do try to read a little every day, though, and confess I get hung up reading John a lot. He’s my fave.

Catcher in the Rye* (J.D. Salinger)This story is an example of why we should give books a second chance, as I once hated it with a passion. Then I was shamed into re-reading it and, although it still didn’t get me super excited, I could appreciate it a lot more than I did when I first read it, which was in eighth grade.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)I no longer recall what brought me to be as obsessed with Alice and Lewis Carroll as as I was in my young years. Nevertheless I love this book. I love this book. Did I mention how much I love this book? Was absolutely addicted to it and everything Alice as a child and, to a certain extent, still am. My poetry and even drawings I once did were heavily influenced by it. Carroll has lots of other offerings as well, so especially for those who only know about Alice, I highly recommend you check out his other work. There’s also a very fascinating book by Anne Clark, The Real Alice, that lays out the actual lives of the historical people, how they knew each other, what their relationships were like and how and where they got on in life. Totally not to miss. By the way, on a visit to New York City I saw a shop, whose name I forget, that is everything and anything Alice: of course tea sets, but also playing cards, stationary, bed sheets, backpacks, decorative boxes, dishes, shoelaces, tissues, scarves, hats, posters, lamps, tee shirts, puzzles, lockets, soft toys, dolls, pillows, mirrors, clocks, spoons, bookmarks, herbal teas, diaries, glasses, candles, make-up brushes, cake toppers, tapestries, stickers, socks, blankets, night lights and so much more that you could imagine!

Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)Avoided it for years. Why? Because I’m stupid, that’s why! I could probably have been talked into reading it but there were too many others before it on my list of “want to read.” Then I saw the movie a couple of years ago and realized what I’d been missing. I was instantly captured. I now own the book and it’s on my 2021 Reading Challenge list. I even want to sew little Little Women clothes for dolls and have collected a few Little Women themed books that my son jokes are really just fan fiction.

The Odyssey* (Homer)Not a great big fan of The Iliad, though it was ok. But when I got to The Odyssey I could barely stop reading. It is very thrilling and I know some of my poetry came from this. When my son was little he, like everyone else, loved to be told a story, and did make a request one day in the car. I told him the cyclops portion and he was so intrigued he wanted immediately to go to the library to find a book with more! It turned out Mary Pope Osborne did indeed have a kids’ edition of The Odyssey (abridged, perhaps; I don’t recall). I loved the translation even better than how I told it: for instance, when the other cyclops demand, “Who did this to you?” the blinded one says, “No man did this.” (I had said “nobody.”) “Well,” they conclude, “if no man did this, then it must be the gods’ doing and therefore is meant to be.” (or something like that – the point is the difference between “no man” and “no one/nobody”). I was so charmed by it!

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Browsing Books: I Really Miss the Library Edition

“Our library looks like a castle,” Turtle would say when he was small. Above, the main branch as it appeared in his childhood. The impractical stairs, and the complete and open patio at the top, are now completely gone following renovation. William Seward, however, still maintains his watch over the main entry.

Like many places across the country, our public library system is functioning at limited capacity. When this whole mess got rolling, it did actually close for around two months, and I learned about it roughly 30 minutes before they locked the doors. At that time we ran to the library and went on a bit of a mad dash around, stocking up on books, music and movies we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten that day. We had entered in somewhat of a daze, but our departure was marked with adrenaline, supplied by librarians, and our own disbelief, reminding us that we wouldn’t be able to come back the next day: “Stock up!”

Some downplay various subjects, but records of them are a testament to the sense of history within past peoples; that we now know as much as we do on even those topics we take most for granted is nothing short of spectacular.

Now, eight months later, the libraries are still closed, though we can actually check materials out and return them again, thanks to the online system and computerized drop boxes. It’s not as magical as ambling lazily along the stacks, or even through them with deliberation, and for the most part you have to know what you want. Patrons can talk to librarians over the phone, but of course some human contact is lost, because chit chat isn’t really a thing with this setup. There’s no replacing the walk around a certain portion of wall to be able to swing by the desk and say, “Hey, just wanted to say thanks for helping me find that article” or, “So funny, we talked about calligraphy ink last time and look what I just found on the new arrivals shelf!”

I really miss our library.

When my son was about two, I was checking out books one day as he toddled back and forth behind me, along a wall and walkway area. The clerk casually looked over and said, “Wow, he has gotten so big!”

“Oh, you’ve, uh, seen this baby before?” I stammered.

What a great time we had with this book! Growling, rolling, counting, hiding and baking were just a few fun activities we played at under its influence.

“Well, yeah, you only bring him in every week since he was born!” I was really taken aback at that point, because I had no idea library staff might even notice such a thing. My attention, hyper focused on a really terrible time we were emerging from, noticed only the necessary. But it made me really happy to know there could be this sort of back and forth, beyond the casual greetings, authentic as they were.

Over the years, the library and its staff (at least the ones we came into contact with) became an integral part of my little son’s life; he was a reader from the get go and they treated him as if he was the most important patron there. He loved the reading contests, talked to staff about his interests, and one of the supervisors gifted him an Ernest Shackleton t-shirt she’d found in a thrift store. (We still have it.) And the twice-yearly library book sales, which my son used to replicate during his at-home play. Need I say more?

As a teen I was obsessed with Lewis Carroll and intrigued to learn so much about the family and world of the Alice who inspired his famous tale. I’ve ordered it from ILL a couple of times in a fit of nostalgia, and it still makes for fascinating reading.

I was delighted to experience an expansion in our excursions when Turtle wanted to start going to the satellite branches, two in particular. They are much smaller, but it was really fabulous to discover that their collections were just as quality as the main branch’s. Browsing through the stacks led me to such books as Butter: A Rich History or copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book I hadn’t even known was published.

So, I can’t go into the library at the moment, and this may be why I seem to have so many books off my shelves recently. I have always had such stacks as my really-want-to-read-these-next pile, or the at-risk-of-forgetting-if-I-put-them-back-on-the-shelf mound. Just last night I finally sat on the sofa, my gaze moving over the multiple small heaps of books and decided they really do need to be arranged in a way less cluttered, more organized. Becoming overwhelmed would never do.

A number of themes present themselves in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and Turtle and I discussed many of them over the years. He often re-enacted scenes by himself or with friends, as children do as a means to better understand their world.

Naturally I browsed as I went along. Perhaps it’s just my grownup version of playing library, separating as I did, into various piles by subject, library or mine, read now or later, take to my room or keep here. It was not unlike the manner in which I stroll through the shelves at the library, and I stopped, memories such as the above and others flooding my mind. The Runaway Pancake, for instance, came with a CD of the author reading to an audience of children. Turtle was enamored of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and, even as a very small boy, used to recite, “Move, and I strike. Don’t move, and I strike” in a voice he made as menacing as he could, to match that of the wicked she-snake, Nagaina.

I first read A Noble Treason just a couple of years out of high school and promised myself I’d read it annually so I never forgot what the Geschwister Scholl et al. sacrificed, not just for German society, but indeed all. They died in order to preserve humanity’s right to the rich, dazzling beauty of ordinary life.

These moments with my boy, now a teenager, seem like just yesterday, but the day the library shut down—eight months have passed and it seems like so long ago. Neither timeline, really, how it should be. Children grow way too fast and libraries, once one of the pleasantries that filled themselves into many spots within those years, have simply stopped. In a way we still haven’t emerged from the library daze we were cocooned in as we walked out the door that day last March, and saying the words out loud—“We are approaching a year since we’ve been in the library”—only contributes to our continuing disbelief. Sure, administrators try to transition at least some programs into online versions of what they once were, but the truth is that libraries are living, breathing places because they are occupied by people who bring the home of stories—our stories, those of our ancestors and all the good and evil they faced, what they created and all that resulted from their massive curiosity—they bring this home of the world’s stories to further life, knowing that they already beckoned us to their circles, knowing we are programmed, in our very DNA, to want to hear the tales they long to tell us. Stories are living, breathing things, they are in our bones and we nourish each other.

Long may it be.

It’s been awhile, but you can check out the last edition
our my Browsing Books series here

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