Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Clear, lucid minds.


I have thrown out about two hundred fifty pounds of books over the last while, only keeping a few. I kept the ones I would be willing to carry up three flights of stairs. That doesn't leave much choice. After two years on the internet, in a house with a pile of well-thumbed books, I ended up reading a lot of non-fiction, and short pieces rather than actual books.

This evening I read an article or two in French. In Canada, all the packaging is labeled in French and English, so it should come as no surprise that I can get a fair bit out of it without an actual translation. This is because major words have common roots, and English and French share many words of common ancestry.

I also read a couple of articles in either Spanish or Portuguese, I'm not entirely sure which. The funny thing is, I again got quite a lot out of it, enough to understand what the article was about, and it was only when trying to sum up exactly what was being said that I ran into trouble. The real problem is of course not the major words like 'revista,' (magazine,) but the grammar, genders, inflections, etc. The translations are not too good sometimes, and both French and Portuguese translations into English left so much to be desired; that all the Portuguese one did was to confirm the subject under discussion, and gave me the gist of it.

The French one was better, and perhaps also 'easier' for the computer. But it did leave a lot to be desired, especially since I am kind of interested in the subject of hyper-text, and exploring and exploiting the full potential of the electronic book; insofar as it relates to the novel, the short story, or the collection. It relates to non-fiction, in that a reader can go deeper and deeper into a subject, by following links to relevant sources, (including pictures and video, not just text,) other than the author. That was what he was talking about, (more or less,) I can say that with some degree of confidence. I could decipher that much.

But after all of that, it was a kind of relief to read Edward Gibbon's editor, J. Bury, in the preface to 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.'

It is nice to meet a clear mind with a lucid style, and to hear them speak across the centuries. Like an old friend, the warmth and the intelligence are there and there is no mistaking it for anything else. It is interesting to remind myself that Gibbon didn't have all the skills in classic languages that one might have expected in those times. It was a labour of love, and he spent the best years of his life doing it.

His gift will be with us through the ages, and you can't do much better than that, ladies and gentlemen. It's also a tough act to follow. I'm not willing to spend five years writing a biography, and most of us will not spend twenty years writing a history of anything particularly important.

The e-book revolution will not destroy the book, nor will it save scholarship. My old fake leather-bound books aren't worth a penny, and would not impress a 'true bibliophile,' a polite term for literary snob. They have corners bent over, the spine is broken on Volume Five, and there are chocolate stains on some of the pages. My brother might find space for these books at his place. His boys, my nephews, will never read them...I know that for a fact.

And so, I am tempted to throw them away as well.

The only constant in the universe is change. Gibbon's book is 'a history of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.'

The only thing I can add is, 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.'

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and in the end, all is vanity.

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