March reading review – The reading review for March was delayed by a number of things. For one, at the end of March I was working on my way-too-long review of Beauty and the Beast, and I ended up posting that on the day the reading review would normally have gone up. Then I took a little break, gave a talk for the Folklore & Mythology people last Tuesday... and the next day came down with a severe cold. At first I thought it was just a sore throat from having spoken for so long (my talk lasted an hour), but on Wednesday afternoon I suddenly felt the cold descend upon me. It began in my throat, hung out there for a while, and then decided to migrate into my head. The worst of it appears to be over, though, and today I am feeling much better. This is good, because I have to travel tomorrow.
At any rate, here is a relatively quick review of some of the reading I did in March, going in order by publication date (not necessarily in the order that I read them).
The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands (Anne Ross, 1976)
I picked this book up at a used bookstore nearby because it looked interesting, and I suppose it was. It’s the oldest book I think I’ve read so far (at least in terms of having made it to the monthly reading review), and it shows—I don’t think people write books like this anymore. It’s basically just a long, rambling description of superstitions in the Scottish highlands, moving from one area to another and from one clan to the next. Like I said, it was interesting, but I’m not really sure what to make of it. I do know that it was the first of a series of volumes on the folklore of the Scottish highlands, which is probably why it seems very heavy on superstition, but unfortunately this was the only volume the bookstore had.
IF Theory Reader (ed. Kevin Jackson-Mead and J. Robinson Wheeler, 2011)
This might seem like something of an odd choice, and it probably will require explanation. “IF” here stands for “interactive fiction.” If you’re not sure what that is, but you know what “text adventures” are, well, there you go. There was a revival of the art form in the 90s, after the demise of Infocom and (most) commercial IF, and it has been largely a community-driven field since. This book is a collection of essays by writers, programmers, designers, and theorists in the field, and I read it partly out of nostalgia—I was aware of the revival in the 90s, and participated in it as a player of some of the games. IF is a very different beast now, with most new works seeming to be of the hypertext or node-based variety, as opposed to parser-based IF. Those terms probably mean nothing if you were never into IF, but the long and short of it is that the book, which deals primarily with parser-based IF, feels like a bit of a throwback. I enjoyed it nonetheless, nerd that I am.
The Trickster Brain (David Williams, 2012)
This is a book I read as part of my research; I have to say that I was a little disappointed with it. To quote the author: “The premise of this book is that stories are artifacts of the human mind, and as such, should be able to tell us something about ourselves when examined in the context of scientific research on the brain.” However, as I read, it seemed that every aspect of the trickster could be boiled down to sexual selection (although later parts do manage to go beyond this). It all felt very reductionist, and as I read I realized: This is precisely the sort of thing that Herman was talking about in Storytelling and the Sciences of the Mind. That is, the book attempts to explain a phenomenon in the humanities entirely through a scientific lens without (seemingly) considering how the conversation might go both ways. Not that I did not glean anything from it at all, but it did not turn out to be what I was hoping it might be (although if you were to ask me what I was hoping it would be, I’m not sure if I could tell you).
I also have to admit that I was very distracted by the poor copy editing: The text is riddled with typos, punctuation errors, incorrect words, and some downright weird phrasing. I did wonder as I read if the text had even been proofread at all. If it was proofread, something went terribly wrong along the way. I know this shouldn’t color my perception of the book, but I’m afraid it does.
Liminality and the Modern (Bjørn Thomassen, 2014)
I must confess that I only read half of this book, the first part: “Retrieving liminality within the history of social thought: From Arnold van Gennep to Victor Turner and beyond.” The second part, entitled “On the liminal conditions of the times in which we live,” deals more with modern manifestations of liminality that are, while interesting, not directly related to what I am doing at the moment. The first part, though, was an excellent examination of van Gennep and his work. Though I’ve done a lot of research into liminality, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a thorough study of its beginnings in van Gennep’s thought.
I appreciated the author’s clear and straightforward style; despite the fact that liminality is a very complex topic, he still managed to convey his ideas in all their complexity without resorting to an obfuscatory style. When at one point in the text the author notes that van Gennep wrote “with a directness of words that we have, for all sorts of reasons, almost lost,” I found myself nodding vigorously. I believe that the author carries on van Gennep’s tradition, and for that I am grateful. Not once did I have to reread a passage or ponder over a heavily-packed phrase to determine its meaning. As far as I am concerned, that is a good thing.
Tolkien’s Intellectual Landscape (E.L. Risden, 2015)
This book was for pleasure rather than research, and it does pretty much what it says on the tin, covering various literary and intellectual influences on Tolkien and his writing. I was familiar with much of the material discussed, but not all of it, so I did learn quite a bit along the way, and the author has some interesting ideas—comparing and contrasting Tolkien’s work with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Eliot’s The Waste Land is something that the book comes back to on a number of occasions, for example.
Although I enjoyed reading this, it was the second book I read last month that could have benefited from more rigorous copy editing—I don’t know if two books now could be considered a trend, but it is concerning that this might be something that plagues academic publishing. Rare, of course, is the book that is completely free of error, but this (and The Trickster Brain) go well beyond what you normally see. For example, the book used end notes solely for supplementary comments throughout the first seven chapters of the book, relying on inline citations for citing sources, but in the final chapter a good number of citations (although, strangely enough, not all) were suddenly shuffled off to the end notes. And there were, of course, numerous other errors in addition to this.
Last but not least, I also read Deborah Smith’s translation of Bae Suah’s The Essayist’s Desk (translated into English as A Greater Music), but as I am writing a review on that elsewhere, I will not comment on that too much here except to say that it was quite an interesting book; Bae has a very unique style.