Raintree County: A Great American Novel

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The “great American novel” is something that is often spoken of but rarely seen. Critics use that sobriquet far too often for books that don’t merit more than a passing glance. But occasionally, a novel appears that is a good candidate for that phrase. And it has just been republished in a new edition!

Raintree County, “which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange,” by Ross Lockridge Jr., was published in 1948 to critical and popular acclaim. This 1,066-page novel attempted to translate the American experience to paper through the eyes and experiences of a seemingly banal character, John Wickliff Shawnessy, “pagan and Pilgrim, poet and poem, idealist and idea” (Charles Lee, writing in the New York Times in January, 1948). Over a period of 24 hours, as Waycross, Indiana, celebrates the Fourth of July, 1892, Shawnessy looks back on his life since 1844, through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with narrative of the celebratory day. He sees his youth, his first experience of pure feminine beauty, his first loves, then the great American tragedy: the Civil War. As the book goes on, we follow this Leopold Bloom of the Midwest through his peregrinations, until the past rejoins the present and the day ends.

It’s hard to sum up such a book. It’s the story of a quest; a quest for the sacred tree of life, the raintree. A quest for origins; for the origins of life and of one man’s life. It’s a story of a man accepting the fate of death, “But if we could only resign ourselves to death, complete death, how much happier we’d be!” It’s a story of a man and his family, his loves, his losses, the war (the Civil War) and how it forms his character.

Anyone reading this book will find that their life has a new milestone: a before- and after-Raintree Country. More than just the characters and narrative, what remains in the reader’s memory is the juxtaposition of the simple, idyllic life in Waycross, Indiana, the proverbial “Anytown, USA” and the chaos of the Civil War or the pandemonium of New York City. Lockridge was seeking simplicity, and showed how it did exist, somewhere in the world, in a place not on any map. It’s both a modernist and traditional novel – modernist in the way the book is structured, with flashbacks melding into present-day narrative, which, in turn, melds back into the past. But traditional in the way it is deeply human, the way its main subject is the life of a man. It has much of the Victorian novel, and is also a very Joycean novel. It belays influences as broad as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Charles Dickens. Yet it is uniquely itself.

Unfortunately, it’s the only novel that Lockridge published; he committed suicide shortly after its publication, perhaps because of the unexpected fame that the book’s success brought him.

See the Raintree County Home Page to learn more about this essential American novel.

Update: Raintree County is finally available in ebook format, from Amazon and the iBookstore, so you don’t have to lug around the 1,100 page tome. I have two copies of it; one in hardcover, from 1948 (not a first edition, but close enough), and the paperback that was finally reissued in 2008. I’ve just bought the Kindle edition for a trip I’m taking, because this is a great book for a road trip, and one that I re-read every few years.

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Book Review: The Romantic Revolution

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It’s hard in less than 200 pages to go into a great deal of detail, but in this book, Tim Blanning manages to sketch out the why and how of romanticism. Why this “movement” began, as a reaction against the Enlightenment, but also as an outgrowth of societal and political change. How romanticism spread, through the most important countries – Germany, France and England – and how new modes of production led to the diffusion of romantic ideas.

For the romantic movement is more than just an artistic movement, even though it covered the major forms of art: music, literature and painting. Many of the causes of its spread were due to new structures, institutions and technologies. Romantic music was spawned in part by the change from patronage to public support for musicians, both in performance and in publication, and to performances both in concert halls and in salons. Literature spread through the many changes in technology that made printing and books cheaper. And images circulated in the form of lithographs and other types of prints that were developed in the early 19th century.

Romanticism is, at heart, about the imagination, about feeling, about art for art’s sake, about the individual being the most important element in the world. Beethoven is the best example of the romantic artist, with Schubert a close second. But romanticism had many forms, from the near-transcendence of Beethoven’s late works, or of Schubert’s finest songs, to the development of characters in literature, such as in Hugo and Balzac. The rise of tourism – notably to the Alps and the Rhine – led to a new appreciation of nature, and a discovery of other lands and worlds. All in all, the romantic movement is probably the greatest cultural and artistic revolution of our time, and this book, in less than 200 pages, sketches the main figures and themes.

While this book is just an introduction, it gives plenty of suggestions of books to read, music to listen to, and art to see to better understand just how powerful this period was. This is a revolution that has not ended; our arts and culture are still influenced by the ideas of the romantics. And this book helps grasp just how important this period was.

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Writers Should Take a Year Off? How About Readers?

An article in today’s Guardian caught my attention: Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break. Indie publisher Colin Robinson suggests that writers take a break, and says:

the deluge of writing itself contributes to declining readership [...] the sheer volume of what is now available acts as a disincentive to settle down with a single text.

As readership declines (I’d like to see his statistics, because I recall reading articles suggesting that this is not the case), Robinson says that there aren’t enough readers for the many books written. I think the problem here is two-fold. People are reading more, but perhaps not books; they’re reading articles, Facebook posts, tweets, emails and text messages. So they have less time to read books. “The literary equivalent of channel surfing replaces the prolonged concentration required to tackle a book,” if that channel surfing includes non-book reading.

It can be overwhelming to be a common reader. There are more and more books being published, and being promoted in those spaces where we read other things: on the web, Facebook and Twitter.

Robinson then comes to his main point:

I would like to propose a writers’ moratorium. What if everyone could be persuaded to stop scribbling for a period of, say, 12 months? Of course we would lose some marvellous work during The Year of Not Writing, and that’s not to be taken lightly. But look at the compensations: we could all kick back, take stock, and get off the spinning carousel of keeping up with the latest offerings. Just think what could be done with the free time: books we’ve loved could be revisited; philosophy or poetry could be afforded the time they demand; tomes of previously forbidding length could be tackled with languorous leisure.

But perhaps it’s not writers who should take time off, but readers. I have had such sabbaticals from reading at times. I’ll take off several months from reading to step back from the book-after-book approach of trying to whittle down my to-be-read pile. Each time I do, I come back and tackle some “tomes of previously forbidding length,” or books that require more effort than usual. Or I go back and re-read great books that I love, and that I haven’t read in a while, rather than picking up a new release.

It’s great to read lots of books; but there are times that you should give your mind a rest, and do something else. See a few movies, watch a good TV series, cook for friends, go for a walk in the park or on the beach. Then, perhaps, come back to reading when you have the urge, and can’t go any longer without a book in your hands.

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Choosing a Complete Shakespeare Edition

As a Shakespeare buff, I have several complete editions of Shakespeare’s works. Yet I’m not satisfied with any of them. And I don’t know if I’ll ever find one that suits me.

Shakespeare wrote a lot. Packaging all of his works in a single edition is very difficult. Publishers of complete Shakespeare editions – there are a half-dozen of them, not counting cheap paperbacks of public domain texts – make a lot of choices when creating an edition of the works. For example, the Oxford Shakespeare touts the following:

$ KGrHqUOKogE10HE9Z sBNgCLiY0cg~~ 35“The second Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works reconsiders every detail of their text and presentation in the light of modern scholarship. The nature and authority of the early documents are re-examined, and the canon and chronological order of composition freshly established. Spelling and punctuation are modernized, and there is a brief introduction to each work, as well as an illuminating and informative General Introduction. Included here for the first time is the play The Reign of King Edward the Third as well as the full text of Sir Thomas More. This new edition also features an essay on Shakespeare’s language by David Crystal, and a bibliography of foundational works.”

The Norton Shakespeare, based on the text of the Oxford edition, claims:

9780393929911_198.jpg“Instructors and students worldwide welcomed the fresh scholarship, lively and accessible introductions, helpful marginal glosses and notes, readable single-column format, all designed in support of the goal of the Oxford text: to bring the modern reader closer than before possible to Shakespeare’s plays as they were first acted. Now, under Stephen Greenblatt’s direction, the editors have considered afresh each introduction and all of the apparatus to make the Second Edition an even better teaching tool.”

And the RSC Shakespeare offers the following:

CompleteWorksJacket.jpg“A definitive modernized edition of Shakespeare’s text based on the 1623 First Folio (the first and original Complete Works lovingly assembled by Shakespeare’s fellow actors and the version of Shakespeare’s text preferred by many actors and directors today); Thought-provoking essays on each play and a superb general introduction by Professor Jonathan Bate; Jargon-free on-page notes which explain words or references unfamiliar to modern audiences; Photographs of classic or unusual performances; Clear, single-column page design, with plenty of space for writing notes; A key facts ‘box’ for each play which summarises the plot, major roles, language and sources.

Leading the editorial team is renowned Shakespearean scholar Professor Jonathan Bate who has worked in close collaboration over many years with the artists and archivists at the RSC. His introductions and notes draw on a unique wealth of experience and resources and will help the reader to understand Shakespeare’s plays as they were originally intended – as living theatre to be enjoyed and performed.”

Complete editions of Shakespeare are created mostly for students, rather than the common reader, and this explains why publishers highlight elements of their books that will incite teachers to prescribe them. But for the non-student who wants an edition of Shakespeare, how is one to choose?
Read more

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Book Notes: Contested Will, by James Shapiro


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I’d always ignored the so-called Shakespeare authorship question, because I think it’s irrelevant. I don’t care who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, because it’s the plays that count, not the man. But I decided to read James Shapiro’s Contested Will out of curiosity about how the theory that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare took hold.

It so happens that I’m familiar with a lot of the backstory – the rise of biblical criticism and the questioning of who Homer was – that serve as a foundation to the earliest anti-Stratfordian theories. It’s easy to understand how, in the early 19th century, people who felt this approach so important could be convinced that another great author was not who he seemed. But as time went by, this became a story of lies, deceit and forgery, as well as convoluted conspiracy theories.

Deep down, it seems that there are two essential elements that come into play. The first is that, according to skeptics, there is no way the son of a glover could have written so eloquently about so many things. His limited education could not have enabled him to write such profound plays. As if in the nature vs. nurture argument, only nurture counts. This has been proven wrong with many artists, musicians and authors who came from humble beginnings, so it seems like a moot point, and surprises me that so many people bring up this point to deny Shakespeare’s legitimacy.

The second element is the belief, which became prevalent in the romantic period, that all art is personal; that art reflects personal experiences. If this is the case, the skeptics say, then Shakespeare, who never visited Italy, could not have written about Italy. This argument seems childish to me; could a writer who has never visited Mars write about that planet? Could one who wasn’t alive in the middle ages write a novel about the period? It’s obvious that Shakespeare was a cosmopolitan man, in contact with people who traveled, and a few discussions in a pub would have given him enough information to write about Italy, or any other country.

Of the many possible alternate Shakespeares, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has become the most accepted candidate. This has as much to do with books being published about him as it does with the oddity of the theories behind his authorship. Since he died in 1604, before Shakespeare wrote many of the plays, there is much massaging of evidence to prove that he was the one. He would have, the Oxfordians say, written the plays before his death, and had Shakespeare “write” them over time. Elaborate ciphers are used to find hidden messages in the texts of Shakespeare’s plays, pointing to Oxford. Yet this would have required a massive conspiracy reaching as far as typesetters and printers…

Contested Will looks at the various anti-Stratfordian theories, but also their genesis, and shows how these theories developed, as well as how they are all wrong. Read it if you’re interested in the history of ideas, and how a conspiracy theory of this type could take root.

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All Take Control Books 50% Off in Back to School Sale


Take Control Books is running a 50%-off sale on all books to celebrate sending the kids back to school and having more time to learn things about your Mac and the apps you use most. Check out my Take Control books, such as Take Control of LaunchBar, Take Control of iTunes 11: The FAQ, and Take Control of Scrivener 2; if you don’t have them, now’s a great time to pick them up. But also check out the dozens of other great Take Control books, about the topics and apps that interest you.

Buy now, because quantities are limited, and the sale won’t last for long!

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It’s Time to Get Rid of DRM on Ebooks

If you read ebooks as I do, you probably know that you are limited in the way you use them. If you buy an ebook from Apple, you can only read it on an Apple device. If you buy a Kindle, you can read it on a Kindle, or an Apple device (because of the Kindle app for iOS, and for OS X), but you’re still limited in what you do with the book. You can’t sell it or lend it, and you’re locked into a specific platform.

My latest Macworld article looks at this. I think that Apple should lead the way in getting rid of DRM on ebooks, the way the company spearheaded the drive to remove DRM from music.

It’s worth noting that my Take Control ebooks – including the just-out Take Control of LaunchBar – have no DRM, so you can read them on whatever device you want.

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Happy Bloomsday to All!

Once again it’s Bloomsday, the 16th of June, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. If you aren’t familiar with this great work of the early twentieth century, it tells the tale of a modern-day Ulysses (Leopold Bloom) as he wanders the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. Closely modeled on the Odyssey, Ulysses is a landmark in modernist literature.

Every year on this day, around the world, people read Ulysses alone or in groups, to themselves or out loud, in performance or simply in sitting on a couch. For this year’s Bloomsday, allow me to recommend a novel way to experience the book. The recently released unabridged audiobook of Ulysses, from Naxos, is a gem. With musical interludes and sound effects, and excellent reading by Jim Norton (and Marcella Riordan for the final chapter, the soliloquy by Molly Bloom), this reading brings the work to life in unexpected ways. At over 27 hours, you won’t be able to listen to the entire book in one day (the novel takes place over a period of “only” 18 hours), but you’ll be drawn into the story in ways you did not expect.For those interested in penetrating this work more deeply, Ulysses Annotated gives you detailed information on the pullulating allusions that fill the novel. And The New Bloomsday Book gives a plot summary that can help you follow some of the more intricate chapters of the work. Hugh Kenner’s Ulysses gives a critical view of the book, and allows you to approach it with greater understanding of the broader scope of Joyce’s vision. Finally, Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce sets the standard for literary biography. You’ll learn more from reading this book than from any book about Ulysses itself. A recent biography by Gordon Bowker also looks at Joyce’s life through documents that Ellman did not have access to.

But most readers can eschew all the extra layers of complexity that such critical approaches add to the novel. The best way to experience Ulysses is to hear it read out loud. If you can, get the audiobook; if not, read the book. It’s long, it’s not beach reading, but it’s one of the greatest novels written in English.

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