Tag: Literature

Spelling numbers

(the kids aren’t alright)

As I spend a lot of my time with kids, I’m exposed to Kiddish – the garbled, innocent language of the recently-literate – quite a lot. And while the majority of Kiddish is inane garbage, I was treated to one marvellous concept today; a kid asked me how to write a five-digit number, by did so by asking ‘how do you spell it?’

At first I was confused, as this child has failed to understand that numbers and letters and fundamentally different things, and must be referred to with different language. Obviously!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the kid had a point. From where they’re coming from, not yet brainwashed by our adult culture of arbitrary rigid lines, letters and numbers are one and the same, as scratches on a page used to indicate meaning. And that’s certainly true; whether you write ‘five’ or ‘5’, you’re still turning that written symbol to a verbal one, and beyond that an idea with a defined meaning.

Maybe the kid was on to something bigger; maybe we shouldn’t be dividing the mathematical and the written, particularly in schools and places of education. The world is how we perceive it, and if we can break down these barriers perhaps our image of the world may become more whole, and more beautiful.

Or maybe the kid was just a moron.

Reading! Studying! Learning! Yes!

(I make that a ‘rule of three … plus one’ there)

I had a seminar today – my only one of the day – that was really rather inspiring. I know that statements like that are tossed around all the time by university admissions people to make idiot students sign up for their courses in Beyoncé studies, but this time it actually worked – I left the seminar wanting to go home and read and work on essays and generally be a productive student.

The seminar itself was relatively unspectacular, just the three of us students sitting in our professor’s room and listening to them talk for the majority of the hour. But I think that’s why I found it so useful; at university, and at least on my course, there’s always a performative element, as lecturers stand on plinths to tell us about Romantic literature as if they’re channeling Old Norse skaldic poets or speakers to the Roman senate. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but there’s a disconnect between my real life of sourcing cheap vegan milk and figuring out how to pay utility bills and my academic life of ‘isn’t this a pretty metaphor?’ – I know that art reflects life, but art rarely is life. This seminar was the total opposite, however; I didn’t feel like we were working through a list of prepared ‘intelligent’ ideas to consider, but were four people interested in a thing rambling on about that thing. Seminars are, of course, pitched to us as all being like this, but rarely are.

And after four months of writing blog posts and playing Dragon Age, I feared I wouldn’t be able to get my teeth into academia again; guess I was wrong.

To Read With No Skill (Be Afraid)

(been a while since a lyric parody post, hasn’t it?)

Considering that tomorrow is my first day of classes after a long-bordering-on-ridiculous summer break of four months, I thought I’d write some lyrics about it, altered from Anti-Flag’s excellent The Ink And The Quill (Be Afraid).

The pages turned black,
The words just getting darker.

So be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

The new Romantics lecturers teach on a Monday afternoon
They welcome in medieval kids but intimidate too soon.

All that we know, all we know.

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

So filled with high expectation that feels like intoxication,
There’s nothing like a reading list to get your cash wasting,
Then you don’t read jack-shit, your past choices you’re then hating.

Cloud-Author to Hitchcock’s films with authority to sneer,
They are the blunt-force fist of all literature,
We’re forced to read, with no skill.

What have we learned? After years,
What have we learned? Besides fear?

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

The books’ touch like fly-trap teeth,
Feel them gripping, your ideas in vain.
Your page runs white, you can’t quite write,
Tomb closing, kiss your first goodbye.

Now you’re done, you’ve been taken on a ride.
We’re in debt, in debt a billion times.
A billion times!

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid,
Of the coming nightmare.

Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be afraid, be afraid
Be very afraid…

(solo remains unchanged. Obviously)

There’s a storm cloud gathering just ahead
Ominous May, raining tests,
When it drops deadlines down on your time,
You better pray like hell you’ve kept yourself in line.
Built on arts and scholars’ scams
Our dear Provost stealing wealth,
Profits so ill-gained sweet,
Malnourished students weep.

As the storm gains strength.
The ageing unions break.
The ancient hall does quake.
And your lungs fill with your spineless pre-paid fees.

Challenge Accepted!

(I don’t always accept challenges … who am I kidding, I take them on all the bloody time)

I met my tutor for the upcoming year today, and was set an essay on a text I’ve not read, in a historical period I know nothing about. It’s due in eleven days.

The faults here – if we can call them faults – are entirely mine; I’ve neglected large parts of my reading lists in favour of blogging and social media projects that I won’t link to now because I want to prove to myself that I can mention my hobbies without ramming them down the throats of the innocent, and am now living with those consequences. I need to learn about a thing I should have learned about, in a much shorter period of time than I would ideally have to learn about it.

But I don’t think this is a bad thing. Deadlines are great motivators, and now I’ll have to be enthused about the subject matter because my studying of it will be squashed into the sort of time frame that will require round-the-clock devotion to metaphors. It’s also good, for me anyway, to have deadlines imposed from others, as I value those to a far greater extent than ones I set for myself: if I fail to hit a reading deadline, it’s my knowledge that suffers, and I don’t really matter so it’s fine; but if I miss an essay deadline, my tutor’s life and (presumably) tight schedule of receiving and reviewing pieces becomes skewed. As a keeper of many colour-coded planning grids, this is an awful fate.

It’s also been good to engage with my degree; Facebook page renamings and sporadic mechanical emails, mass-sent to the unwashed masses that constitute the UCL English Department student body, because we’re interchangeable parts, are nice but face-to-face communication is a much better thing. In the heady mixture of article-editing, child-tutoring and breadline-living that is the vast majority of my life, it’s easy to forget that I’m actually studying medieval literature, a thing that I rather enjoy.

So bring it on, essays. I’m ready. Mentally, if not logistically.

Some Kickass Old English Words

(sadly I can’t find a word for ‘kickass’)

In my ‘studies’ (i.e. flicking through the glossary of Peter Baker’s Introduction To Old English in pursuit of funny words instead of actually translating ones I need’) of Old English, I’ve stumbled across some rather awesome words, that I will now share with you (instead of actually learning Old English vocab).

Ānmōd, united in purpose – It’s probably just me, but I hate the Modern English construction of things being ‘united’, but consisting of separate words.

Ælfscīne, of Elven beauty – Old English, creating fantasy compound words way before Tolkein.

Bealuwaru, dweller in evil – I quite like the idea of evil being an almost geographical concept, that anyone can fall into like a pit, rather than an individual trait that people either inherently are or can adopt.

Befēran, overtake – For all the Mario Kart that Beowulf and Wiglaf play outside of the poem.

Fyrngeflit, ancient quarrel – Because the kids these days need to be taught a thing or two about real quarrelling.

Gefaran, traverse / die – Old English, the only language where walking across the street and being mauled to death by a bear can accurately be described with identical sentences.

Gifan / Gīferness, to give / greed – There’s only one letter and a letter-topping line between the roots of these two opposite words; gives me the impression that there is more common ground than we think in the giving and receiving of things, and the only difference is an artificial linguistic perception we, as people, have put onto them.

Hlagol, inclined to laugh – This is literally a mispronunciation and an extra syllable away from being ‘lol’ in Old English.

Inwidhlemm, hostile wound – As opposed to all the friendly ones you receive in battle, obviously.

Nihtstapa, walker in the night – A compound invented by my friend, this is one of those common examples of Old English wisdom, that they have a word to describe the nocturnal stumbling habits of twenty-first century university students a good thousand years before such people existed.

Ofhrēowan, cause pity for someone  – This makes pity into a thing we impose onto others, rather than a purely individual and internal response of a victim or sufferer. It’s a pretty depressing concept, but if we can force negative emotions onto people as well as positive ones, it opens up far more interactions and relationships than you get on even Sims 4.

Sencan, submerge – For all those submarines the Weather-Geats built.

Sigebēam, tree of victory – Literally the best metaphor I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Either that, or it’s another bit of Old English hat Tolkien turned into The Lord Of The Rings (I’m thinking the Ents here?).

Sigewong, field of victory – A close second to the previous word, a big part of my affection for this one comes from the use of ‘wong’. Hehehehe.

Today I Bought A Book

(I have nothing to add in this section)

I was in the big-ass Waterstone’s conveniently plonked a fifteen second walk from my English department, and saw a book on the shelf in the sci-fi section. It had a striking cover, a title that united two political terms you don’t usually find alongside each other, and contained in the blurb a premise that is both original, and kept poignantly vague so I’m interested in it, but have no reason to read it. The book is Adam Christopher’s Empire State, and centres around a parallel 1930s New York, in which the Prohibition era is in full swing, and the city’s superheroes (because that’s a thing) spend more time fighting each other than solving crime; I don’t like to play the genre game, but it seems to me like superhero-noir-historical-parallel-reality fiction, which is quite nice to write out hyphenated like that.

The point of those step-by-step instructions in how I selected that particular novel is quite simple: I bought a book because I wanted to read it, rather than the usual (if you’ll excuse me) intellectual bullshit reasons we get for reading things on my course.

Empire State didn’t invent the novel, or contribute to a particularly obscure school of philosophy, nor is overtly pushing a religious/political/ideological agenda (at least from the blurb and title – I’ve yet to begin reading), nor is is part of that all-important and mindless ‘canon’ that I’m supposed to have read as an arts student in some generic, self-improving way. I understand that some books are more thoughtful, more intelligent, and simply better than others, but the whole ‘you should read this’ idea suggests, by implication, that there are things you shouldn’t read, or are less deserving of your obviously so important attention – I’m probably gonna live for eighty frakking years man, that’s plenty of time to bumble around in bookshops picking out crap novels for myself!

There’s much to be said for appreciating ‘bad’ art, not in the way that I’m going to enjoy watching Sharknado (my wonderful Secret Santa present from last night’s party), but to see how and why a piece of art has failed – were the ideas good and salvageable, but the wording awful? were the themes inappropriate for this art form, but would work well in another? – and how I can improve my own writing/drawing/painting etc as a result.

Specifically for books, I think their purpose is to convey ideas and, if you hadn’t noticed, a lot of ideas and the people who come up with them are offensive, obtuse, inconsistent and simply weird; sometimes an anarchic mess of a novel is way more fun than a neatly-constructed sonnet or whatever, and I don’t mean the kind of constructed ‘look how clever I’m being by chucking in marbled pages’ nonsense of Tristram Shandy, I want off-the-wall crap from nutcases, illiterates and outcasts, which I’ll probably not find in the mainstream confines of Waterstone’s, but I’ve got through Paradise Lost and The Bible this term alone, so I reckon that’s a pretty good place to start.

And I’m not saying that Empire State will be any of those things, or that its author is frakked in the head; the point of buying the book was that I didn’t look it up at all; I tried to buy it as much on its own merits as can be conveyed through a blurb and a cover, so I can get into it with a blank mind. I don’t like reading something for the first time knowing that ‘it’s a classic’ or that ‘I should enjoy this’: I’m a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, but found Asimov hard to get into; I like social politics and relationships, but found Middlemarch almost impossible to wrap my head around.

What pisses me off most of all, though, is that I can’t just say ‘I bought a book’ as I’d like to, but need a 700-word blog post justifying the fact that someone who likes reading things will now read a thing. It seems that the default position for bookish types is to power through the big names of literature, as I’ve done myself, simply because of the names attached to them, then sit around and talk about just how much they got the significance of the centre of gravity being the Devil’s penis in Inferno, rather than getting into the mass of generic shots of spacecraft and planets, headless female models wearing little clothing, and blocks of texts entirely in capital letters featuring the words ‘dark’ and ‘edge’ with worrying frequency that populate most of the sci-fi section at Waterstone’s.

Because ‘the classics’ and this canon I hate so much do have a place in literature, and a place in understanding human consciousness that can’t be undermined or underestimated; but for every line of Wordsworth I’m going to pick over with a toothcomb over the next month, there are a billion galaxies, races and historically-inaccurate lords and ladies for me to get through in crappy stand-alone novels written by god only knows which sad frakker. And I’d rather get lost in a billion weird worlds than one that makes sense.

You Can’t Speed-Read The Bible

(Adam begat Seth; Seth begat Enos; Enos begat Cainan; Cainan begat Mahalaleel; Mahalaleel begat Jared; Jared begat Enoch; Enoch begat Methuselah…)

Look, I know that The Bible is a work of incredibly significant literary, historical and religious value, essentially setting out mankind’s system of morality, social orders and individual freedom for about three thousand years, but by the Eight it’s a dense bastard to get through; that subtitle, with the lists of people (only men!) being born to other people (still more men!), isn’t an exaggeration, an entire chapter of Genesis runs like that.

I’m sure that I’ve been conditioned by reading tweets and punchy newspaper headlines over the last ten years or so of my life, so it’s an understandable surprise to read something consisting of really long-ass sentences, but that doesn’t make it any harder; I’ve been trying to get through the fifty chapters of Genesis by tomorrow for a seminar, and I’ve had to give up after doing thirty-five in about three quarters of an hour, because there’s only so much Abram name-changing and self-circumcising one can take in one session.

And sorry if this post is a bit limp and lifeless; reading that damn tome has been on my mind quite a bit today, having quoted it far too often in my first Paradise Lost essay (which I’ve not finished, except from the surprisingly specific bibliography one must include), and now having read it continuously for a while. Honestly, today I got up, tried to walk after screwing my legs up at various sporting clubs over the last week (I could – barely), wrote my essay, then read The Bible.

I knew that parts of being an English student would be like this though, and I’m not complaining about the tasks I’ve been set, I’m more surprised with how different it is compared to A-level work, or reading in general; A-levels weren’t necessarily easier, but then it was all about reading a book over the course of a year, making notes on every small detail and exploring them in multiple essays. Now we’ll cover the billion-page Bible in an hour and a half’s worth of seminar, write no essays no it, and be expected to pass an exam on it at the end of the year.

I’ve always been motivated to do things, but only the things that would result in punishments if I didn’t do them, and if those punishments were made apparent on a daily basis; I’d do homework because I was in school for seven hours a day, five days a week, and you can’t really hide from teachers for that long. But now I’m at uni three days a week, for at most three hours at a time, so I’ve suddenly got a shit-load of ‘free time’ that I know I should be using to read, but motivating yourself to actually do things for yourself takes a bit of getting used to.

This isn’t helped by the fact that when I decide to do something for myself – read The Bible – I come out the other end with weird names swimming around my head, and feeling as brain-dead as you would at the end of a seven-hour Football Manager marathon.

But as I keep telling myself whenever university is difficult – I’m here to learn, not to be learned. So I’ll now shut up and get on with that learning.