Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson

(Book Review )

This book has been making the rounds at my office lately. A co-worker passed it on to me with the words: “This is the best book I’ve read in years. Possibly, the best book I’ve ever read.”

That, you'll agree, is high praise indeed. I can’t go quite that far in my own recommendation. But I will say it was a very readable, and very enjoyable, little book.

Even before a co-worker pressed this book on me, it has been on my list of “books-to-get-around-to-reading-eventually.”
I like Bill Bryson (see my reviews of other Bryson books, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, A Walk in the Woods, Down Under, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.)
And, as a graduate of a couple Shakespeare courses in university, I have some interest in Shakespeare (although I'm far from an expert).
I didn’t know anything about his life, but I was moderately curious about it and more than willing to be guided through by a talented writer like Bryson.

Since I don’t know anything about the life of Shakespeare, I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of this book. I’ll leave that to other reviewers. What I can say is that this book is fun to read. It’s got the warm conversational tone you would expect from Bryson, plus the usual Bryson humour, but it is also packed full of interesting little tidbits of information about Shakespeare and the times he lives in.

The central conceit (or joke) of the book is that we know so little of Shakespeare’s life that it’s almost impossible to make a book out of it, but let’s try anyway. Bryson lays this out in the first chapter.

To answer the obvious question, this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because this series does. [This book is part of the Harper Collins Series of Biographies "Eminent Lives" (W).] This idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.
Which is one reason, of course, it’s so slender.

You wouldn’t think this would make much of a premise for a book, but Bryson pulls it off.

Bryson lays out the bare facts we know about Shakespeare, and then explains why we know what we know, and why it is that we don’t know much else.
In doing so, he frequently pokes fun of eccentric Shakespeare scholars, who have often spent years and gone to great lengths to search through thousands of 16th century documents just to establish the little that we do know of Shakespeare.
One the other hand, Bryson also makes fun of other Shakespeare biographers who fill in the historical gaps by sometimes making wild inferences about Shakespeare’s life based on questionable assumptions.

And along the way, Bryson drops in the few little facts we know about Shakespeare, and also talks a bit about the life and times Shakespeare lived in.

In doing so, Bryson is easily able to stretch out the facts into a very readable 195 pages.

What else is there really to say about this book?

...well, I guess if I were pressed, I could come up with a few notes and nitpicks.

* The section on Shakespeare’s vocabulary and his contributions to the English language is essentially a repeat of information Bryson has already included in his previous work The Mother Tongue. So if you’ve already read The Mother Tongue, it’s slightly tiresome to have to read this same information twice. However this makes up only a small section of the book, (only 6 pages, 108-114) so it’s forgivable.

* There were a few points in this book that left me mildly confused, and there are a few points I would have liked to learn more about.
Maybe it’s just me as a history buff, but I would have enjoyed more discussion about the politics and ideologies behind Shakespeare’s history plays. I’ve heard before that many of Shakespeare’s history plays were designed to reinforce the claims to the throne of Elizabeth I and James I respectively, but I don’t know as much about this as I would like. Bryson mentions in passing that Macbeth makes reference to the gunpowder plot, but he doesn’t give the actual line. I would have liked to read the actual lines.
Also I would have liked some clearer idea of how much we know of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. For example on page 194, Bryson mentions in passing that Ben Johnson kept private notebooks. How much can we know about Ben Johnson’s life through his private notebooks? How common a practice was this in the 17th century?

And there are various other questions that are still lingering in my mind after reading this book.

But on the whole, considering how easy this book is to read and how slender it is you get a good education on Shakespeare for very little effort. You can't beat that.

Link of the Day
Somebody Else’s Atrocities, “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Gov’t Co-Opted Human Rights”

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Link of the Day
The Crisis in American Walking: How we got off the pedestrian path.

To which I add a few brief thoughts of my own.
I've not done any research to support this, but I believe that Americans walk less not just because driving is easier, but because it is almost impossible to walk anywhere in American cities.
To give examples from my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan: it is almost completely impossible to walk down any part of 28th street without constantly feeling like your putting your life at risk. I the summer, maybe you can get away with walking across car parking lots and across lawns, leaping over the occasional drainage ditch. In the winter, forget it. And at many places it's just about impossible to cross the street, even at the traffic signal.
Cycling down the street creates the same problems.
Also there is no pedestrian access to many of the major shopping malls in the city.

If we could redesign our cities to make them more pedestrian friendly, I believe this would solve both the obesity problem in America, and also significantly cut down on pollution. Americans aren't genetically predisposed to be lazy, but we live in cities in which you can't walk anywhere even if you wanted to.

On the same topic: I'm also reminded of this passage from Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods. I think Bryson expertly describes here the problem of trying to walk anywhere in America. I have many similar stories myself, one of once trying to get to a shopping mall on foot.

Waynesboro had a traditional, vaguely pleasant central business district covering five or six square blocks, but, as so often these days, most retail businesses had moved out to shopping centers on the periphery, leaving little but a sprinkling of banks, insurance offices, and dusty thrift stores or secondhand shops in what presumably was once a thriving downtown. Lots of shops were dark and bare; nowhere could I find a store at which to get insect repellent. A man outside the post office suggested I try Kmart.

"Where's your car?" he said, preparatory to giving directions.

"I don't have a car."

That stopped him. "Really? It's over a mile, I'm afraid."

"That's OK."

He gave his head a little dubious shake, as if disowning responsibility for what he was about to tell me. "Well, then what you want to do is go up Broad Street, take a right at the Burger King, and keep on going. But, you know, when I think about it, it's well over a mile-maybe a mile and a half, mile and three-quarters. You walking back as well?"


Another shake. "Long way."

"I'll take emergency provisions."

If he realized this was a joke he didn't show it. "Well, good luck to you," he said.

"Thank you."

"You know, there's a cab company around the corner," he offered helpfully as an afterthought.

"I actually prefer to walk," I explained.

He nodded uncertainly. "Well, good luck to you," he said again.

So I walked. It was a warm afternoon, and it felt wonderful-you can't believe how wonderful-to be at large without a pack, bouncy and unburdened. With a pack you walk at a tilt, hunched and pressed forward, your eyes on the ground. You trudge; it is all you can do. Without, you are liberated. You walk erect. You look around. You spring. You saunter. You amble.

Or at least you do for four blocks. Then you come to a mad junction at Burger King and discover that the new six-lane road to Kmart is long, straight, very busy, and entirely without facilities for pedestrians-no sidewalks, no pedestrian crossings, no central refuges, no buttons to push for a WALK signal at lively intersections. I walked through gas station and motel forecourts and across restaurant parking lots, clambered over concrete barriers, crossed lawns, and pushed through neglected ranks of privet or honey-suckle at property boundaries. At bridges over creeks and culverts-and goodness me how developers love a culvert-I had no choice but to walk on the road, pressed against the dusty railings and causing less attentive cars to swerve to avoid me. Four times I was honked at for having the temerity to proceed through town without benefit of metal. One bridge was so patently dangerous that I hesitated at it. The creek it crossed was only a reedy trickle, narrow enough to step across, so I decided to go that way. I slid and scampered down the bank, found myself in a hidden zone of sucking grey mud, pitched over twice, hauled myself up the other side, pitched over again, and emerged at length streaked and speckled with mud and extravagantly decorated with burrs. When I finally reached the Kmart Plaza I discovered that I was on the wrong side of the road and had to dash through six lanes of hostile traffic. By the time I crossed the parking lot and stepped into the air-conditioned, Muzak-happy world of Kmart I was as grubby as if I had been on the trail, and trembling all over.

The Kmart, it turned out, didn't stock insect repellent.

So I turned around and set off back to town, but this time, in a burst of madness I don't even want to go into, I headed home cross country, over farm fields and through a zone of light industry. I tore my jeans on barbed wire and got muddier still.

Friday, June 01, 2012

more links:

I know I'm about a month late on this, but I've been meaning for a while to write a post about how the US government has been continually praising Chen Gaungcheng for exposing his government, but continually demonizing Bradley Manning for doing the same thing.

But it turns out other people are way ahead of me on this, so I'll just link to their work instead.

Washington Needs to Learn the Lesson it Pretends to Teach

I don't want to tell the Chinese government how to do their job, but if I were them I'd be highlighting the Bradley Manning/ Chen Gaungcheng connection as a face saving way out of this embarrassing international news story. (Or have they already been doing this, and I missed it?)

[Disclaimer: Not, of course, that I support the Chinese government, or their persecution of Chen Gaungcheng.]

Onto another topic entirely...

I'm about a week late in linking to this, but hopefully the more international attention this story gets, the more pressure will be put on the Cambodian government to redress the situation. So spread this link around:

Boeung Kak women jailed after three-hour trial