Thursday, August 30, 2012

to the moon

From the Earth to the Moon* is Jules Verne's 1865 novel about America's attempt to send a projectile to the moon. This book isn't as large as some of the other Verne books I've read, and frankly, not as good.

Verne takes the reader on a wonderful journey, spoiler warning it just doesn't go to the moon. "What?" you exclaim, "How can a story called From the Earth to the Moon, not actually include the moon, pray tell?" Yeah, good question.

Jules Verne instead, takes us on a tour of the American Spirit. This travelogue is not a fanciful trip around the world in a balloon, or under the sea with a monomaniacal U-boat captain, but a tour through what Verne believes sets American apart from the rest of the world: its ability to never take no for an answer, and its tireless pursuit of technological excellence. Verne states numerous times, that no nation on earth could overcome the technological and engineering challenges of sending a projectile to the moon, and describes in detail how the Americans do it. Its a flag-waving, back-slapping, kiss-on-the-mouth to American ingenuity and resolve... in 1865!

In fact, the USSR was the first to flyby the moon, on January 2, 1959, with Luna 1. The US didn't accomplish that goal until about two months later with Pioneer 4. The USSR was also first to impact a man-made probe on the moon with Luna 2, in September of the same year. The first lander and orbiter, also USSR with Luna 9 & 10, respectively, in 1966. The US and USSR then trade landers, orbiters, flybys, return probes and impacts until Apollo 8 orbits the moon on a manned mission on December 21, 1968, and then lands a manned mission** on the moon 7 months later, with Apollo 11, on July 16, 1969

For those of you counting, Verne predicted this achievement, and wrote about it rather convincingly, 103 years ahead of time.

This book will tweak your patriotism or your love for America, and scratch that classic, hard-SciFi itch you have, but beyond that, myeh.

* French title: De la Terre à la Lune
** Rest easy in the deepest of the deep; Neil Alden Armstrong

Sunday, August 26, 2012

listmania ii

Maybe Eco has a kind of obsessive-compulsiveness? Or maybe he just enjoys lists for lists' sake. Two of the examples used in his essay were excerpts of his own writing, in which he made use of lists to deliver a message he says, is unlike any other type of communication. Umberto Eco delights in a list's ability to capture the perceived infinity of ideas, and the calming, orderly effect of reading them. Indeed, Eco offers prayers in the form of lists of the saints as an example of this power lists can have.

If the perceived infinite can calm, it can also disorient, and this perhaps is the power some lists have, that most intrigues Eco. The Italian title for this book, in fact, is probably more accurately translated for me as 'The Vertigo of Infinity' or 'The Giddiness of the Infinite.'*

From the first chapter of the Italian version:

"Però con questo libro non si va solo alla scoperta di una forma letteraria di rado analizzata, ma si mostra anche come le arti figurative siano capaci di suggerire elenchi infiniti, anche quando la rappresentazione sembra severamente limitata dalla cornice del quadro. Così il lettore troverà in queste pagine una lista di immagini che ci fanno sentire la vertigine dell’illimitato."

And my translation: with a little help from the google

This book not only examines a literary form rarely analyzed, but also shows how the arts are able to suggest infinite lists, even when the representation seems severely limited by the frame of the picture. Thus the reader will find in these pages a list of images that make us feel the vertigo of the unlimited. 

An example of the 'suggestion of the infinite' Eco uses is the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci chose to portray la Gioconda not in some closed room, but in front of a window or perhaps on a balcony, and the landscape suggests a background that goes on and on. I read only recently that the background on the Mona Lisa may have indeed been larger and has been cut down over time. Compare to the recent restoration of 'La Gioconda' by the Museo Nacional del Prado. This copy of the Mona Lisa has been attributed to da Vinci's atelier, and it looks like it may have been painted in parallel to the original, side-by-side , and nearly strok-by-stroke, but hasn't suffered the same loss over the years. And this image actually shows a window frame, or outlines of columns and sill of a balcony or galleria, which may have been present on the original. wild tangent complete

The book itself is lush with beautiful images and text culled from the greatest works in the last few thousand years, beautifully printed and bound by Rizzoli. The Infinity of Lists may be a little obsessive, and little too rich with examples, but as a companion book to an exhibit, I suppose that makes sense. I have few more Umberto Eco novels on my shelf, but I think they'll stay there for a while while I rest my brain.

* Translation of The Infinity of Lists is by Alastair McEwen. Altho, the Bibliographical References of Translations in the backmatter, includes a note about the translations of the various texts used as examples throughout the book by a person named Alta L. Price.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

listopia i

Umberto Eco is one deep-thinking, renaissance man. The Infinity of Lists* is both thought provoking in its depth, and mind numbing in its detail. It's almost obsessive in its inclusion of examples of lists--both written and visual. At the halfway point, I have the distinct impression that one can find lists as an organizing tool for information and thought almost anywhere. Man's need to sort, categorize and list things is so ingrained that we take list-making for granted, and assimilate the information contained in them automatically.

And that's exactly what Eco is pointing out in this richly illustrated and exampled essay. Eco, in fact, has created a list of the different types of lists we use to organize and display information. He's categorizing the categorizers and their categories. One could almost say that this essay is a catalog of categorizing,  categorizers, and their categories. In taking apart, or deconstructing these tools we've developed, he's helping us to understand the underlying mechanics in them; to see them for what they are.

Many of the written examples include excerpts from things I've read, and I was surprised to see the lists contained in them. I don't recall reading such long lists buried in those works, with a few possible exceptions... Jules Verne, I'm lookin' at you.

Eco put this book together as a companion to an exhibit of the same name he helped to organized at the Musée du Louvre, in 2009.

The English translation was done by Alastair McEwen.

More to come! when I finally pound through this book

* Italian title: Vertigine della lista

Friday, August 10, 2012

word origins


I love etymology, but I'm not too sure that extends to Word Origins* by Anatoly Liberman. Now, a quickie peruse roun' the internet tells me that Anatoly Liberman is not, as I suspected, an English dude, but!, ah the plot thickens my dears, he is, in fact, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia. Okay, okay, I thought I was going crazy there for a bit, because I had the distinct impression that Liberman is an English language fan-boy, big time, but he wasn't speaking American English. His name, and maybe the Oxford Press made me think 'British', but this guys lives and teaches in Minnesota.

Here's a little taste:

"A search for words somehow connected with the word whose origin was being investigated lost its character of a ramble among look-alikes, and a surprising realization came that look-alikes are deceptive"

'Of a ramble,' brother?

Word Origins is a love letter to the English language from a life-long enthusiast. Liberman is quietly amusing and entertaining throughout while he carefully traipses over some rather boring etymological ground, namely; how etymology is done correctly--and how it isn't.

Word Origins traces the history of etymology through the ages, touching on the major advancements -- and setbacks -- in etymological studies. All the while, giving examples of how words and roots can be traced and connected via their 'cognates' in English and in other languages; with examples that have stood the test of time, and those that have proved to be somewhat less than correct wrong.

A very interesting section on 'folk-etymology' and its impact on the language illuminated a lot of  mistakes that have made it into pop culture and haven't ever made it out. Like where the f-word comes from. spoiler: unknown. not some trumped-up acronym for adulterers in the stocks.

Where else are you going to hear gems like this:  Ju-piter is actually a compound word consisting of an old version of god (dieu-) pronounced dyew- as in soldier, and a variant of the word pater, from which we get father. So Jupiter is literally, the father of the gods. 

The problem, my dear man and here's where I address the 'open-letter' portion of my blog to the author himself, like I'm some kind of big ass New York Times editor, and he may actually read this, is that the stories are a bit rambling, and the thoughts slightly disconnected. Many of your passages read like experiments in free association, which can be a little hard to follow. You skip from examples of correct etymologies, to stories of incorrect etymologies, and I don't discover this until you finally tell me, "...myeh, but that was wrong." I'm paraphrasing

So a little slow, but interesting if you love it. It took me a month or so to pound through this one, and I ended up reading three other books at the same time.  and I wouldn't recommend that unless you're Sybil by-the-way.

* Full title: Word Origins ... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone