Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Art of Reading Indie

Can anyone be beautiful if someone doesn’t say to them, “I think you’re beautiful”? Can anyone be intelligent if the results of a test don’t confirm “you’re a genius”? And more pertinent to our discussion, can any book be good if not validated by a 4 or 5 star review? Can a book without reviews at all be good in any sense of the word? Doesn’t someone need to tell us it is? Otherwise, isn’t beauty, intelligence, and artistic worth a relative term, utterly meaningless without a verifiable source?

To me, the question of indie writers and books comes down to this simple question. When you browse the shelves of a bookstore or library, you implicitly know that these books have been curated for you by the experts. Not only publishers, but booksellers, sales charts, award committees, and librarians have each had their say, and personally picked through the debris of literature to offer these chosen gems: these are good and worth your time, they seem to say. So even if you take a book and decide it’s not for you, the reason isn’t that the book itself is bad, or comes from an inferior pen; it simply wasn’t your cup of tea, or what you were in the mood for. You don’t take it personally (or most of us don’t). 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Playing With Words

Langston Hughes reportedly wrote out drafts of poems on napkins or whatever spare material he had on hand, often composing right in the thick of things in a club or coffee house. When someone asked him why he didn’t invest in some more permanent writing material, he responded that writing on napkins wasn’t “for real,” and it allowed him to make mistakes and not take it so seriously. And he’s right: try writing a poem or the beginning of a story on a napkin sometime, or the back of a menu, or even on your own hand. There’s a sense of play in the activity, a sense that you’re not really writing, just giving it a shot. It’s probably the best cure for writer’s block known to man or woman: change the medium, and you change the writing. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Racing To The Future: Charting Diversity in Science Fiction

What color is the future? Who inhabits it? What do we call the cultures or races of the 24th century? There’s no easy answer to these questions, though science fiction has always attempted to answer them, even in times when such topics were largely taboo. Most comic book lovers are familiar with EC comics’ story “Judgment Day” (Weird Fantasy #18, 1953) which tackles the subject of 1950’s race head-on. In the story, a representative of Earth lands on the planet Cybrinia, “Planet of Mechanical Life.” The planet is inhabited by two species of robots: the orange robots and the blue robots. Tarlton, ambassador from “Earth Colonization,” is greeted by a contingent of orange robots, who take him on a tour of their city: he is shown their technology, their government, and finally, their means of production. The ambassador is puzzled that he doesn’t see blue robots anywhere in the facility, though is told that they work elsewhere. While impressed with the means of building and educating their new robots (after a brief apprenticeship, they get to choose their own vocation), he insists on seeing where the blue robots are constructed. Nervously, his robot guide answers, “Well…you’ll have to go over to Blue Town…on the South side of the city for that!” 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

You Are What You Read

Image from Jeffers, The Incredible Book-Eating Boy

In the Renaissance, when books were quite scarce and each one a precious object, owning a library was a sign of either wealth or eccentricity. Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) assiduously tried to assemble, piece by piece, most of the forgotten learning of the Greek and ancient world before it was irretrievably lost. As he explained in a letter, 

“I tried, to the best of my ability, to collect books for their quality rather than their quantity, and to find single volumes of single works; and so I assembled almost all the works of the wise men of Greece, especially those which were rare and difficult to find…They must be preserved in a place that is both safe and accessible, for the general good of all readers” (Jardine, Worldly Goods).

For Bessarion, there was a difference between many books and good books: he was willing to exhaust his time and coffers to find “quality” rather than simply amass a library. Even a Cardinal knew they needed a richer, more varied diet than 15th century Europe offered to the masses. If every dish represents a culture, then so, too, each book represents a whole history of ideas, preserved in careful thought and language. By reading the great works of the ancients, he hoped to bring about a true Renaissance of learning, as if books alone could resurrect the academies and agoras of the ancient philosophers.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Would You Rather Read or Play a Novel?

In an old episode of Star Trek: Voyager (“Future’s End, Part I,”: Season 3, 1996), the crew travels from the 24th century to late 20th century Earth, there to encounter the wonders of ‘modern’ civilization, including soap operas. As Neelix (the crew’s cook) tries to explain the intricacies of a specific episode, Ensign Harry Kim is puzzled, remarking “how strange to watch a story you don’t interact with.” He is of course referring to the Holodeck, where the crew literally becomes part of their favorite stories, be it Beowulf or a desperate defense of the Alamo. In the 24th century, stories are meant to be lived in and through—not as passive intellectual entertainment. In a sense, it is the ultimate merging of literature and video games, where classic stories can be re-lived and re-imagined, a basic story template upon which a ‘reader’ can play different roles that lead to unexpected outcomes. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Giacchino's Rogue One: A Soundtrack Story

Many people were understandably upset (myself included) when we learned that John Williams would not score Rogue One, though he thankfully remains committed to Episode VIII, and we assume, IX. After all, there has never been a Star Wars installment without Williams, from the familiar fanfare to the trademark themes and leitmotifs. But Rogue One always set out to be something different, not part of the trilogy proper, but an addendum, showing us the behind-the-scenes work that led to the heroics of Luke, Han, and Leia. To add to our collective confusion, the composer tapped to provide this installment, Alexandre Desplat, was replaced at the last minute with the uber-busy film composer, Michael Giacchino, fresh off his magnificent score for Doctor Strange. If we believe the press, Giacchino had a mere four weeks to score the entire film—no laughing matter for an epic that spans over two hours of screen time. However, I wonder whether or not that was simply to lower expectations for the score and deflect criticism of a non-Williams work? Either way, what we hear in the film—and on disc or MP3—are simply the notes, no matter how they were composed. After all, Mozart wrote the famous overture to Don Giovanni in the hours before its first performance, and his even more famous Symphony No.36 in a week. So why not a film score in four? 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Musical Mount Everest: 36 Hours and 104 Symphonies With Joseph Haydn

One of the most daunting tasks in classical music is navigating the symphonic output of Joseph Haydn, the so-called “father” of the symphony. For most composers, the symphony is the most august, serious, philosophical statement one can make in music. A symphony is like a four-act play, with each act/movement capturing something of the struggle of being human, or of contemplating the divine. Even a light-hearted symphony is written ‘big,’ for the gargantuan modern symphony orchestra (often over one hundred players strong) and made to sound like the entire universe is singing. For this reason, many composers wait until middle-age to tackle a symphony, if only because the greatest composers are in their rear-view mirror, seeming hoarding the best themes, structures, and innovations.