American Elephants

Andrew Klavan on the culture. by The Elephant's Child

Book notes: What do you read over and over? by The Elephant's Child
April 8, 2009, 8:48 pm
Filed under: Entertainment, Freedom, History, Humor, Literature | Tags: , ,

How could I resist a picture that combines a yellow lab with a book?  I want to talk about books and reading.  In particular, about the kind of book that you get lost in; and the kind of book that you want to read and re-read, over and over.  Those are fairly rare.

There are, of course, thrillers that you cannot put down, speeding through the pages to learn how it turns out.  They can be absorbing and fun, but once you have found out what happens, it is spoiled for a second reading, for the suspense is all that was there. Thrillers often are inflicted with wooden characters, improbable situations and are acceptable only because the author manages his plot and suspense well.

What have you ever read that has it all?  Fully developed characters, fascinating detail, believable situations, and you want to read them over and over.

There are the books that are “should” books, those that conventional wisdom says you should have read.  Many of them you probably read in high school: The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Macbeth, Red Badge of Courage and 1984, for example.  And there are lots that you should read to appreciate milestones in literature and the influence that literature has had on people through the ages. But, assuming you went on to become an adult reader, are those books the ones that gave you the most pleasure?

My favorites are Patrick O’Brien’s series of the Royal Navy adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  There are 20 books in the series, and I have read them all over and over.  The characters are clearly defined in the first chapter of the first book, and you are hooked. The books are dense with science and action right out of the pages of  the real captain’s logs of the Royal Navy in the early 19th century. I have read them all at least 7 or 8 times.  I loved the movie of Master adn Commander as well, though the movie combines episodes from several books.

Then there is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, a story of a classical hero in the age of the Renissance, a series of 5 books, beginning with  The Game of Kings. I also like Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle, and The Last Convertible, which each stand alone.  And currently, I am enjoying Alan Furst’s atmospheric stories of Europe as the shadow of World War II descends.

There are many books that I admire, that I would recommend to anyone; but not so many that I read over and over.  Do you have any that you return to again and again?

King George III riding to address Parliament on the distressing issue of war in America. by The Elephant's Child
January 3, 2009, 7:14 pm
Filed under: Art, History, Literature | Tags: , , ,

Here is an odd bit of trivia for you.  I received David McCullough’s 1776 for Christmas. He begins the book with a description of the procession “on the afternoon of Thursday October 26, 1775,  in which His Royal Majesty George III, King of England rode in royal splendor from St. James’s Palace to the Palace of Westminster, there to address the opening of Parliament on the increasingly distressing issue of war in America.”

An estimated 60,000 people turned out to line the route through St. James Park.

By tradition, two Horse Grenadiers with swords drawn rode in the lead to clear the way, followed by gleaming coaches filled with nobility, then a clattering of Horse Guards, the Yeomen of the Guard in red and gold livery, and a rank of footmen, also in red and gold.  Finally came the King in his colossal golden chariot pulled by eight magnificent cream-colored horses (Hanoverian Creams), a single postilion riding the left lead horse, and six footmen at the side.

No mortal on earth rode in such style as their King, the English knew.  Twenty-four feet in length and thirteen feet high, the royal coach weighed nearly four tons, enough to make the ground tremble when under way.  George III had had it built years before, insisting that it be “superb.” Three gilded cherubs on top — symbols of England, Scotland, and Ireland — held high a gilded crown, while over the heavy spoked wheels, front and back, loomed four gilded sea gods, formidable reminders that Britannia ruled the waves.  Allegorical scenes on the door panels celebrated the nation’s heritage, and windows were of sufficient size to provide a full view of the crowned sovereign within.

It was as though the very grandeur, wealth, and weight of the British Empire were rolling past — an empire that by now included Canada,  that reached from the seaboard of Massachusetts and Virginia to the Mississippi and beyond, from the Caribbean to the shores of Bengal.  London, its population at nearly a million souls, was the largest city in Europe and widely considered the capital of the world.

The coach is housed at the Royal Mews, and is used for Coronations and formal occasions.  It was last used for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.  I’ve probably seen it in pictures, but until this description, I never focused solely on the coach itself, and it is well worth focusing on. ( It is bigger than my living room! ).  The Royal Mews houses a whole raft of state coaches, but King George III’s coach is indeed something special. You can download a cut-out-and-paste-model of the coach here, if you are so inclined.  For size relationship, remember that a standing footman barely comes to the bottom of the coach windows.  It is indeed superb.

Is The Internet Making Us Stupid? by The Elephant's Child
December 16, 2008, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Freedom, History, Literature | Tags: , , ,

One of the great problems of education has been the desire to make education easier — easier and more interesting for the teacher, who finds it boring to have to do it all over again each year with a new batch of children, smarter or dumber, quieter or more obstreperous.  And of course, if a way could only be found to make kids enjoy learning the basics of civilized life, then it would all be so much easier, and more fun.  After all, things should be fun, shouldn’t they?

When television first arrived on the scene, everyone was sure that we had found the magic key.  Symphonies, uplifting plays, history as it was being made. That turned out well.

The computer and the Internet are still thought to be some sort of magic in the education of children.  President-elect Obama apparently believes that much good will come from greener school buildings and more computers in the schools.

An elementary school principal noted that “fifth graders proceed as follows when they are assigned a research project; go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up, and turn it in.” This is not knowledge formation, but information retrieval.

Anyone who has Googled for information knows the difficulty of separating the valid websites from the junk.  Keywords get you keywords, not necessarily deeply informed information from a reliable website, and not even correct information at that.  Discernment is not much taught in fifth grade.  That takes long education in reading and history and the other basics.

A number of writers are suggesting that reading on the web is changing the way we read and the way we think.  Nicholas Carr has written recently in a piece titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic Monthly that he is now having trouble with lengthy reading.  The deep reading that used to be so enjoyable has now become a struggle.

[M]edia are not just passive channels of information.  They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.  And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.  My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it’ in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet ski.

I’m not the only one.  When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances — literary types, most of them — many say they’re having similar experiences.  The more they use the Web, the more they  have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

James Bowman expands on Mr. Carr’s essay in The New Atlantis with his recognition of the changes in his own reading patterns, and evidence from other authors that there is something going on here that is as yet untested by those who explore and test the functions of the brain.  If  you have children and are concerned about their education, these two essays provide food for thought.

I would suggest that schools have it backwards. Students need to learn deep reading, discernment, judgment and how to cope with the overflow of information characteristic of our age before they learn about how to retrieve information.  In elementary school math classes, students are taught with the assumption that they will always have a handy calculator.  Cursive writing is no longer taught in many schools, for it is assumed that students will always have a handy keyboard.  Is there a relation here to declining math and science scores and the decline in SAT scores?

There is, however, plenty of time to teach children of the dangers of global warming and the importance of recycling and the pressing need to save the polar bears.  Go figure.

Harry Potter Meets Real Life? by Emerald City Elephant

Scientists move one step closer to making invisibility cloaks reality.

Nelson, Cochrane, Seymour and other Royal Navy Captains have left an amazing inheritance for today’s scientists by The Elephant's Child

Have you read the marvelous seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brien? There are twenty in the series featuring the sea captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, the surgeon and scientist Steven Maturin. I have read them all over and over, as have many others. The movie, based on the series was “Master and Commander”, and a wonderful entertainment.

Now the logbooks, kept by every Royal Navy captain from the seventeenth century onwards, which were Patrick O’Brien’s inspiration, are becoming one of the world’s best sources for long-term weather data. Ship’s officers recorded details of air pressure, wind strength, air and sea temperature, as well as extreme weather conditions such as storms and hurricanes.

An early study of 6,000 logbooks has produced results that raise important questions about many climate change theories. A paper by Dr. Dennis Wheeler, a Sunderland University geographer, in the journal The Holocene, details an increase in the frequency of summer storms over Britain in the 1680s and 1690s.

Some scientists believe that storms are a consequence of global warming, but these were the coldest decades of the so-called Little Ice Age of the years from 1600 to 1850. The article is fascinating, and you can read it all here. Many of the logbooks contain verbal descriptions of weather rather than numerical data, but ship’s captains recorded weather in consistent language. There were forms to be observed in logbooks, and seafarers stuck to them.

British archives contain more than 100,000 Royal Navy logbooks from around 1670 to 1850 alone. They are an incredible resource.

History. by The Elephant's Child

I want to talk a little about history. Daniel Boorstin in his book Hidden History, clarifies things for us. Historians learn about the past through what he calls “the bias of survival”. His first example is his search, in an effort to better understand religion in colonial New England, for a copy of The New England Primer. It first appeared in 1690, and was the basic vehicle of religious instruction as well as the main text of compulsory education in Massachusetts. It was the best selling New England schoolbook, and sold some 3 million copies. Mr. Boorstin went in search of an original copy, but couldn’t find one. He found many volumes of Puritan theology and sermons in pristine condition in rare-book rooms of university libraries, often with uncut pages.

He also calls this “the law of the survival of the unread.” That which is heavily used in daily life is not apt to survive, and we are left with things that were valued, but unused. This applies to things as well as to reading material. That which is “collected and protected” survives, that which is used daily does not. Historians at Colonial Williamsburg feel that they originally had too much of a bias towards the protected, and may have lost much of the reality of everyday life.

What goes in government files survives, but the records of informal groups do not. Objects that have a high intrinsic value survive. The “academically classifiable and the dignified” survive. The history of “materials surrounding controversies” survives. The temperance movement has left a vast literature, but we know little about what and how much earlier Americans drank.

Boorstin also mentions the “survival of the self-serving: the psychopathology of diarists and letter writers”. The troubled may write volumes about their angst, while happy people are too busy to write at all. There is a bias towards success, a “survival of the victorious point of view”.

History may change suddenly, with new access, new discoveries, as for example, the opening of the Soviet archives. A new ability to interview participants on both sides has changed the history of the Vietnam War. Is the history of today changing as people communicate by telephone and e-mail instead of letters? Is our history to be told by today’s movies and newspapers? Most of us don’t think that is reality.

We look at the happenings of the past with today’s eyes. How absurd to think that the people of today should apologize for things that happened in the distant past. The past is. It happened. Nothing that we think, say or do will change the past. We may learn more about what happened, but what did happen is fixed and unchangeable.

We need, however, to learn as much about the past as we can. Knowing about the past helps us to do the right thing in the present, and a lack of knowledge may lead us to foolish mistakes.

What we learn about the past may change our ideas of what is right or wrong in the present, but our ideas about what is right or wrong about what was done in the past are irrelevant. Any effect that we have on the future is out of our control. We are responsible only for ourselves in this brief moment of time that is ours.

We cannot predict the future. Time is not a smooth highway stretching out into tomorrow. It’s more like a river with boulders and rapids, eddies, and side streams adding to the flow as it rushes on.

Great news for movie lovers… by American Elephant
August 13, 2007, 3:20 am
Filed under: Literature, Movies, Pop Culture | Tags: , ,

Is it just me, or have there been an unusual number of good movies this year? Perhaps its just me, since—while I enjoy many genres—I like good fantasy/sci-fi, family and adventure films the most. All the better when I get all three in one film.

The most encouraging consequence of the success of the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Narnia movies, is that Hollywood seems to have discovered books.

Hollywood is horribly afraid of anything new. It only makes sense; if I were the one putting up my millions to finance a film, I would want some assurance that I would get a return on my investment. Hence the regrettable practice of filming the same films over and over—whether it be the third remake of King Kong or the 27th Rocky sequel—Hollywood wants a sure thing.

But that practice has resulted in stale fare and declining box office.

Enter Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. Someone finally explained to Hollywood execs what a “book” is, that there are millions of them, that they all contain stories (some of which are very good, in many cases beloved by millions)—and most of which have never been made into movies.


The result is there are good movies again. Movies that we havent all seen a hundred times in one incarnation or another. And thats what I’ve been experiencing lately. I must say, so far, so good. But the one big drawback, is that a bad adaptation can destroy a good book. But on the other hand, when one is well-made, it makes going to the movies fun again.

And I had a fun time at the movies tonight. I saw Stardust—which I’ve never read—and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was truly new.

I also saw previews for several more movies based on books that I love. The Golden Compass looks well-made and exciting; The Dark is Rising (a favortie), however, looks more questionable. Still, I look forward to both. The Spiderwyck Chronicles I have not read, but will have to look into, as it looks right up my alley. And finally, there’s Beowulf (not a book I loved, mind you, rather a book I was forced to plod through in high school) looks positively frightening—and not in the good way.

At any rate, anything that enfuses new life into the Hollywood line-up is great by me. (Click on the pictures to view the trailers)

Stardust The Golden Compass The Dark is Rising The Spiderwick Chronicles Beowulf Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

So now what? by American Elephant
August 8, 2007, 8:10 pm
Filed under: Literature, Pop Culture | Tags: ,

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I’ve just finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the second time. Finished reading it the first time within 18 hours of receiving it on release day, and now I’ve just finished the second, more leisurely reading.

So now what?

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book for years—counting down the days like a child waiting for Christmas—and now it’s over. I know what happens to Harry, Ron, Hermione, the Weasleys, the Dursleys, Hagrid, Neville, Luna, Snape and Professor McGonnagal. And it was wonderful! I loved it! It was everything I hoped it would be. But now the story is finished and there will be no more.

So now I need something new to read. (fiction, I have plenty of nonfiction piled up.) Anyone have any recommendations?


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