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2 Mar 2017

February reading review – Let me start by saying that I hope all of you in Korea had a happy and restful March First, although that is not the occasion for today’s entry. No, instead, it’s time for my February reading review. This past month I definitely got more reading done than I did in January, although in the end I finished the same number of books (three). I did read significant parts of two other books, though, one of which I will be including in this month’s journal (for reasons I will explain when I discuss said book) and one of which I will be saving for next month.

“Reading this book feels like having a chat with a very humorous, very informed, and very enthusiastic storyteller”

However, this month’s review begins with... well, a failure, I guess. I debated whether or not I should include this book, as I just could not get into it, but I was also loathe to comment negatively on it. In the interest of keeping a record of my adventures in reading, though, I decided to discuss it.

The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, Charles Taylor (2016)

I remember spotting this book at the MLA meeting and being quite enthusiastic about it. It was the first book I picked up this month... but I put it down again on the same day and never picked it up again. What went wrong? Well, as I mentioned above, I just couldn’t get into it, and that was due primarily to (ironically enough) the language. I think it was partly the writing style; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way. It was more than just the style, though. Every now and then I would run across a sentence that stopped me in my tracks. By this I mean that I would have to go back and read these sentences several times to figure out what they meant. There were even a couple of sentences that I never managed to figure out—no matter how many times I read them, I just could not parse them. (Don’t ask me what they were, because I didn’t write them down, and I am not diving back into that text to find them.)

This may have to do with my unfamiliarity with the ideas discussed in the book. Perhaps if I had a deeper foundation in philosophy and the sciences of cognition, language, and epistemology, I might have been able to use that knowledge as a scaffold on which to build an understanding of the book. But I don’t, so I couldn’t. The blurbs on the back are effusive in their praise, promising a “deeply thoughtful, historically enriching, and ultimately luminous book,” but I didn’t get any of that. To be honest, the book made me feel kind of stupid. Despite these initial misgivings, I continued to plow ahead, determined that I was going to make sense of the text. But when I got about halfway through the first part, I came to the realization that it wasn’t going to get any better, and that life was short. And with that realization I put this book down and picked up the next one.

Storytelling and the Sciences of the Mind, David Herman (2013)

This was another book I bought at MLA, and the girl who was manning the booth when I bought it said that it had caused quite a stir when it came out. Like The Language Animal, I was looking forward to reading this, so I was quite dismayed to open it up and find yet another dense, jargon-filled text. But this book is more pertinent to my field of study, so I was far more familiar with the ideas being discussed and thus had much more success with it.

I can’t say that this book was a pleasure to read. This is not to say that I am not glad I read it, or that I did not find it quite interesting and informative. I am, in fact, glad I read it, and I did indeed find it interesting and informative. But it was sort of like going to the dentist. When the visit is over and your dental health has been greatly improved, you’re glad that you went, but no part of the experience was what you would call enjoyable.

I often found myself wondering if the writing really needed to be as dense and complex as it was. Herman is quite clear that he believes it does. At one point early in the text, he mentions that a reviewer complained about his book proposal, saying that it was filled with too much unnecessary jargon (I vigorously nodded my head when I read this). Herman replied that the language was critical to understanding the subject, and he almost seemed to wear the complaint as a badge of pride (or maybe that’s just me projecting out of frustration). I remain unconvinced, though; had I the inclination and motivation, I’m pretty sure I could put all of the author’s core ideas into much simpler and approachable language.

Lest it seem that I am just slamming this book, let me make it clear that I did find it rewarding, and I do believe it is a very important work. And, despite the density of the language and proliferation of jargon, Herman does quite a bit to help readers through the text. There is a lot of signposting, for one, which I found very helpful. He also uses a lot of concrete (not to mention fascinating) examples, and there are even separate sections between chapters that the author calls “worked examples,” where he systematically applies the ideas discussed in the previous section to a specific work or works. Finally, at the end of each chapter, the “concluding remarks” summarize the key ideas discussed in that chapter. I may disagree with the author about the necessity of the jargon, but the pains that he took to get his points across shows that he was not deliberately trying to be obscure.

I won’t get too much into what the book was about—it would take far too long to do it justice—but I will say that I did learn quite a bit about narratology. I’m not sure how applicable much of it will be to folklore, but the chapter on gestures in face-to-face narration looks like an interesting avenue for future investigation. The author has written a number of papers and chapters specifically on face-to-face narration, and I am definitely going to have to look those up at some point and read them. I am also going to have to revisit this book in the future; having read through it once now, I suspect that the second time will be easier and even more rewarding.

Trickster and Hero, Harold Scheub (2012)

I actually had my eye on this book for several years, ever since I saw it at my first AFS meeting. I finally bought it at last year’s AFS meeting and had it shipped to my parents’ house, and I picked it up when I arrived in January. (The reason that I had to wait was because most of the booksellers at the AFS meetings do not ship internationally, and they also do not have books to sell with them, so if you’re an international visitor, unless you are lucky/quick enough to get dibs on their display copies, you’re out of luck).

This book is definitely the most useful book for my current research project that I have read so far. Since I have done extensive research on the trickster, there is not much here that is new to me in terms of theory, but Scheub examines some traditions that I was not familiar with, and I found these parts quite fascinating. Indeed, most of the book is devoted to various recorded tales, so in addition to being an interesting discussion of the relationship of the trickster and the hero, it is also a repository of trickster tales that are mostly new to me.

The scope of the book is much larger than what I am working on, dealing with both sacred and profane tricksters, but it does help me put my research into a larger context. But that is all I will say specifically about the content; the trickster may be fascinating for me, but I suspect that some of the finer details I might get into would be boring for most readers. And, again, it would take far too long to do the book justice. I did appreciate Scheub’s approach and ideas, though, as they jive with mine but provide a different enough perspective to give me plenty of food for thought. This was also the first book that I read this month that was not physically painful to read.

The Spey: From Source to Sea, Donald Barr & Brian Barr (2009)

Regular readers will probably remember that HJ and I visited Scotland last summer, where we walked the Speyside Way before heading to Edinburgh. At our B&B in Craigellachie, I think it was, I spied this book sitting on a shelf. I picked it up and thumbed through it very quickly, and it looked like something that would be fun to read. So I put it on my wishlist, and it ended up being a very, very early birthday present.

This was the first non-academic book I read in February, and I have to admit that it was a breath of fresh air. Even had I not been comparing it to academic fare, though, I think this book would still have been a joy to read. It was born out of an illustrated talk that the first author gave on many occasions, and this is obvious from the very first page. I mean this in the best way possible: Reading this book feels like having a chat with a very humorous, very informed, and very enthusiastic storyteller. In addition to personal anecdotes about the river and its environs, the author is also quite knowledgeable about the history of the area—the asides where the author puts forward his own theories regarding unsolved historical mysteries are particularly interesting.

I will admit that my familiarity with the area probably had something to do with how much I enjoyed the book; someone with no interest in Speyside or Scotland in general might not find the book very interesting. But I enjoyed it, and I learned quite a bit about the area—so much so that I wish I had read the book before our trip instead of after. As it is, it just makes me want to go back for another visit, but this time with a car so we can see a lot more than we did on our walk. The walk was great, but that is one of the disadvantages of long-distance walking—you are sacrificing a lot of sightseeing possibilities for the sake of the walk itself. Not that our walk wasn’t more than worth it, but after reading The Spey I realize how much more the area had to offer.

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Edwin G. Burrows & Mike Wallace (1999)

This is the first book I have read this year that was not written in the 21st century. It’s also the first book that I am writing about that I have not read in its entirety. The book is over 1200 pages long, and so far I have read about a third of that, or the chapters that deal with New York’s history through (roughly) the end of the 18th century. The reason that I am discussing this book now rather than when I finish it is because I was reading it for an article I am writing on 18th-century New York, so I intend to put it aside now and pick it up again at a later date, possibly dipping into it on occasion to read a chapter or two.

As a result, I can’t really write about the book as a whole, but what I’ve read so far has been quite good. I’ve always had a penchant for history, so the odds were in the book’s favor from the start, but it also happens to be very well written. I mean this not only in the sense of the language itself (which is both refreshingly straightforward and skillfully wrought), but also in how the story of New York is presented. One of the themes of Storytelling and the Sciences of the Mind (and other books, like Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal) was that we understand things better when they are presented to us in the form of a narrative. What Burrows and Wallace do here is paint a grand narrative spanning not just the years but all aspects of life in New York, from the very lowest classes to the “cream” of society, from civilian to military concerns, and covering the broad scope of the city’s mercantile, artisan, and financial history.

Despite having been born and raised in the United States, during which time I never strayed too far from that great center of gravity (some might say “black hole”) that is New York City, my knowledge of US history in general and New York history in particular could probably be better. To say that I have so far learned a lot from this book would be an absurd understatement. This book has allowed me to arrange all of those little fragments of knowledge that were scattered about my brain into a sensible order and to see how they fit into the bigger picture. I probably wouldn’t have started reading this book were it not for the article, but I am glad I did, and when time allows I will definitely be reading this book to the end. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why this history goes to 1898: That’s when the city of Greater New York as we know it today, with the five boroughs, was incorporated.)

I think that covers it for my February reading. As I mentioned above, there was another book that I started, but I will get to that next month, after I’ve finished it.

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