In the peninsula of Bithynia…

[Text found in an old notebook, dated 1983.6.11 — slightly edited]

In the peninsula of Bithynia, in about 120 B.C. — the chronicles are not very precise, saying only "in the reign of the Elders of the House of Baal" —a girl was seen near the Temple of Tanit with a T-shirt (for this would seem to be the garment described) inscribed thus: "Ravissez-moi, je suis vièrge. Estienne."

When asked what that meant, the girl said she wasn't sure (the characters themselves were quite unlike the Phoenician script known to the region) but that it was her father's idea, that it was addressed to the Carthaginians and would assure her — and thus the House — of eternal existence in the fiction of Flaubert.

The interlocutor, a young acolyte of Tanit, was not troubled by the reference to the unknown foreign god Flaubert — there were so many gods, and it was well to respect them all — but he was puzzled by the severe and undecipherable characters. How, he asked, were the Carthaginians — who in all events were not expected in the area — how were they to understand a message in a strange language?

"Oh, my father says the Carthaginians of Flaubert understand it perfectly," replied the girl.

[I must have been reading Salammbô; "Estienne" may be a reference to the type-face used for at least some editions of Flaubert's works.]

Authors Sign eBooks Electronically - NYTimes.com

What great ideas! For all the Kindle and Smashwords readers of A Gift for the Sultan (and other things that I will be publishing shortly — watch this space).

Authors Sign eBooks Electronically - NYTimes.com

By the way, if you're hesitant about shelling out $4.99 for this e-book (even though you've seen the reader reviews and know that lots of other people really liked it), you can download a sample free in either Kindle or Smashwords. With the latter you get the first 20% (with Kindle a little less) — enough to either whet your appetite or (in the unfortunate and less likely case) to tell you that it's not for you.

If you're reading your e-books on an iPad or Nook or anything but a Kindle, Smashwords is your best bet: click here.


When Brooklyn was gentle

Brooklyn Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A sweet, gentle story of an Irish girl who migrates in the 1950s from her small town to bustling and multi-ethnic Brooklyn, learns to cope, finds a nice Italian-American guy, returns to Ireland for a wake and a visit and is briefly torn between slipping back into the familiar comforts of the old place and returning to her new life back in Brooklyn. Though written by a man, this is a woman's book, told from Eilis Lacey's point of view and mostly about her relations with other girls and women, who try to advise, guide or — ineffectively — control her; the guys are secondary characters, mostly bumbling and insecure but generally well-intentioned. Toibin has made Eilis' fears, desires and hesitations all sound authentic, and presented her with a real but not very dramatic dilemma: she will either remain in Ireland and reintegrate herself into what she now knows is a very slow, limiting but unthreatening life, or she will go back to Brooklyn for what she foresees as a dull routine as a housekeeper for her Italian-American plumber husband. There is little excitement, hardly a hint of violence or even serious ethnic conflict in this Brooklyn, but still it is an enjoyable read because Eilis is so likable and believable. But was Brooklyn ever really so sweet?

View all my reviews


Books Without Batteries:The Negative Impacts of Technology

Why e-readers are bad for our forests, and our brains (a provocative little essay by Bill Henderson)
Books Without Batteries:The Negative Impacts of Technology

It's all true. It's also almost entirely irrelevant. Every new technology has negative impacts, beginning (if we restrict ourselves to literary matters) with the invention of writing and reading. People stopped having to learn the great poems by memory, and the very practice of writing (and of reading) rewired our brains, creating many more connections between the right and left hemispheres, with — among other effects — the loss of the voice of the gods.

At least, if you accept Julian Jaynes' argument, which I still find powerfully plausible: The ancients, according to Jaynes, including the Greeks before Homer, Moses, and all peoples before literacy would hear the voices in their right brain hemisphere as though they were coming from somewhere else. And since the voice telling him or her what to do was the remembered voice of the tribal leader or patriarch or sachem, its timbre carried great authority. And since the source was invisible, it could only be the voice of God. Some god or other, anyway. The loss of that direct communication with the gods was seen as an enormous tragedy in the societies that had only recently been corrupted by literacy.

That wasn't all. We went along for millennia with some people with re-wired, literate brains and most without, some people hearing spooks and others unable to except under extraordinary pressure (fasting, self-flagellation, opium-smoking, or some other practice to shut off those right brain-left brain communications). But then Gutenberg and his colleagues and successors made literacy available to almost everybody, with another unintended negative consequence: Widespread use of the written word now created new "imagined communities" of people who could read the same language! Thus people who had hitherto been unacquainted with one another and had nothing in common but the ability to read the same language began thinking of themselves as a "nation" and felt themselves apart from those who spoke and read some other language. And we all know what followed: the Napoleonic wars, world wars I and II, the partition of India, etc. etc. We're still paying the price for that kind of literacy.

And now e-readers, again rewiring our brains and pulping our environment. And like those technological revolutions of the past, they are unstoppable; we're just going to have to deal with them. And maybe there can be some positive effects, too, if we just know how to look for them. After all, there are still people who argue that literacy was a good idea. And that printing on paper had advantages over clay tablets. I'm not so sure — a lot of us still miss hearing those voices of the gods.

Click here for more Jaynes and his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It's worth reading.