renown

This week, on ABC Classic, they have been featuring the works of Luigi Boccherini because it’s his birthday on Saturday. When I heard this, I thought, “Imagine being dead for over 200 years, and people are still celebrating your birthday…”

Well, of course, you wouldn’t know that people are celebrating your birthday if you’re dead, but you might have descendants, and I wonder how they would feel. And what if they have no interest in whatever you’re famous for?

Back in 2020, ABC Classic spent the whole year celebrating the life of Ludwig van Beethoven because it was his (theoretical) 250th birthday — 250 years since he was born. To be fair, he was a particularly prolific composer, so it’s kind of understandable that they wanted to stretch the celebrations over a whole year so that they could still play other music in between all the Beethoven.

Anyway, as I drove home from work, listening to the radio presenter talk about how it’s Boccherini’s birthday, I started thinking about how someone gets to this level of renown — how do you get so famous that people will continue to celebrate your birthday for generations to come? Is this what it really means to be a “legend”, or how you know this or that is a “classic”?

But I guess no one really thinks that far into the future when they’re writing an opera or composing a symphony or whatever. More likely they’re thinking of their present audience. Resonate with your present audience first, and there’s a chance your work could resonate through the years ahead.

And then I started thinking about us common folk, who don’t aspire to be legends. A similar principle still applies, doesn’t it? Do good by the people around you (your audience of sorts), and be well-received and well-remembered by them, even if only fleetingly. Is it ok to try less or do less just because your audience is smaller or their memories are more fickle?

timeless truths

In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.

Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.

Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.

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suspended in mid-air

Usually when I finish reading a book, I write a post for it, but I’ve been pretty undecided on whether or not to write a post for David Copperfield. This isn’t because I didn’t enjoy the book (I enjoyed it immensely), but because it is a classic, and I don’t think it really needs a “review”. Also, it’s such a huge book – where would I begin?   Continue reading

porcupines & donkeys

I feel like a lot of my recent posts have been rather “thought-heavy” – by which I mean that they seem to be heavy with thoughts. (That makes sense, right?) With this in mind, I’ve been meaning to post something a bit more light-hearted and whimsical to kind of balance it out.

Something else that seems a bit unusual about my blog lately, is the absence of book-related posts. The last post to be filed under the “books” category was written at the start of January! That’s two and a half months since I wrote anything significant about books! The main reason for this is, of course, that I’m still making my way through David Copperfield, which is an incredibly long novel. (I generally prefer to wait until I’ve finished an entire novel before posting anything about it.)

Having made these observations about the state of my blog, I’ve finally decided that, tonight, I’d do something to remedy it.

Charles Dickens has held the post of my most favourite author for many years. I believe the first Dickens novel I read was Oliver Twist, which my class studied in grade 10 English. Afterwards, having thoroughly enjoyed everything about his writing – the style, construction, character development, etc, etc – I proceeded to read A Tale of Two Cities, and then Great Expectations. I’ve also read The Old Curiosity Shop (although I’ll admit that this one did not have quite as great an impact, or leave quite as strong an impression upon me, as the other two).

I will acknowledge, of course, that 19th Century literature isn’t for everyone, but so many “classics” were written around this era, and the wit and profundity contained in these works is incredible (in my opinion, anyway).

But let’s not get too far into that. I want to keep this post relatively “light”, and wanted to mention the above simply as a preface to the short excerpts that I wanted to share. But, first, in my typical way, there’s still a bit of preamble to get through:

I do a lot of my reading in public places, around other people: on the bus, at train stations, at cafes/restaurants, in waiting rooms, and, very occasionally, at the cafeteria at work during my lunch breaks. Consequently, I am often in these public places when I come across particularly amusing moments contained within whatever novel I happen to be reading, and often cannot help grinning as I read through these. Far from being embarrassing, however, I find that I tend to be further amused by the very situation, and am compelled to grin all the more. Not surprisingly, this has happened many times while reading David Copperfield.

To appreciate the amusement I derived from the below quote, you don’t really need to know anything about the story, but I would like it to be known that it is spoken by Thomas Traddles, a friend of the novel’s eponymous protagonist. The two of them are on their way to meet important people (it does not matter who, but, if you must know, they are Dora’s aunts), and David kindly implores Thomas to smooth down his hair. Thomas’s response is thus:

“Nothing will induce it… You have no idea what obstinate hair mine is, Copperfield. I am quite a fretful porcupine.”

(I just think it’s funny that he called himself a porcupine.)

Another amusing character is David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who displays innumerable eccentricities. One of the first of these that we are introduced to is her ongoing war against donkeys trespassing on her front lawn:

The one great outrage of her life, demanding to be constantly avenged, was the passage of a donkey over that immaculate spot.

And I could go on, but it’s getting late, and it’s just started raining, and those two things combined are clearly a sign that I should go lie in bed and listen to the rain (and, I dunno, maybe sleep as well).

of Life, the Universe, and Everything

In high school, we were lucky to have a number of different English units/courses to choose from for grade 9 and 10. Depending on your interests, you could spend a semester learning about fantasy, romance, comedy, classics, etc. For one of those semesters, I chose the science fiction unit, mostly because I wanted to expand my reading horizons (I mostly read fantasy novels at the time).

I remember our teacher explaining that sci-fi can include anything that asks the question “what if…?”, and by this broad definition, a lot of novels can fall into the sci-fi category. Our focus novel was ‘Jurassic Park’ but, if I remember correctly, we also analysed ‘I, Robot’ quite a lot as well. Since then, I’ve tried to include more sci-fi books in my reading list. I’ve come across a lot of bad sci-fi, but there’s also a lot of good sci-fi out there as well. I reckon a good science fiction book can instil a sense of wonder and awe (and maybe fear) at previously unexplored possibilities.

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams is often featured on lists of “books you should read before you die” and is probably one of the most renowned sci-fi novels ever written. Many fans would consider it to be a classic. I’ve wanted to read THGG since high school, but just never got around to it …until now!

My overall impression of THGG is that it’s a very funny book mostly because it’s silly but seems to take itself quite seriously. It could easily have been a focus novel in the comedy unit (I never chose that unit because I thought analysing why comedies are funny would take the fun out of them) but I understand that different people have different senses of humour, so THGG might not suit everyone. When I was on GoodReads earlier, I saw several reviews by people who found absolutely no enjoyment in reading THGG at all.

When I think about it, though, a lot of the positive reviews just listed quotes or concepts that people thought were really funny, clever or insightful. Because of this, I feel like the storyline was perhaps a bit randomly all over the place and lacking in real substance. It doesn’t have the same profound resonance that other great sci-fi novels have – the ones that echo in your mind long after you’ve finished reading them. But that’s not to say that it’s not thought-provoking in its own right. You just have to remember that it started out as a radio series, so that would have affected how the story was constructed.

Truth be told, I was surprised once I’d gotten to the end of book to find that it’s actually part of a trilogy, and then when I got onto GoodReads, I realised there’s actually a volume 4 and 5… All this time, I actually thought it was a stand-alone book (whoops…) The question I’m asking myself now, of course, is whether or not I want to seek out the rest of the series and read those books too. I suppose I would like to (so I can find out if/how they find the question to the answer) but I’m not in any great hurry to read them.

As I was reading THGG, I was constantly smiling at the random jokes. I’d like to share some favourite parts because I feel like the main reason I liked this book was because it’s a collection of funny things put together into a story. Be warned, there may be spoilers.

  • The history of Ford Prefect’s real name, which he couldn’t learn to pronounce (so his father literally died of shame) and the nickname he was given, Ix (“which in the language of Betelgeuse Five translates as ‘boy who is not able satisfactorily to explain what a Hrung is, nor why it should choose to collapse on Betelgeuse Seven'”)
  • Why Vogon poetry is only the third worst in the universe
  • The missile that turned into a whale, which then briefly pondered its existence before dying on impact on the surface of Magrathea
  • A lot of the things that Marvin the depressed robot says
  • Slartibartfast and his revelation about how and why Earth was created
  • The mini side-story about how the Vl’hurgs and G’Gugvuntts joined forces to attack Earth but “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog”