19 September, 2009

Okay, so updates need more regularity. But I do have a good excuse, as the madness with school has yet again begun.

Anyway, a new book.

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story by Evan I. Schwartz is well, just that. I first heard about this on NPR toward the beginning of the summer, and due to the library's insistence over fines, wound up reading two halves of this book about a month or so apart. The Wizard of Oz itself is so central to our early 21st century culture, that the allure of discovering its origins was too much to pass up (incidently, both Megan and I were coming home very late that night and listened to the same story in each of our cars).

Finding Oz is as much a biography of Lyman Frank Baum as it is of the story itself. In short, Baum had been a late 19th century jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none whose career began in western New York as a chicken farmer and veered to playwright, oilman (in New York and Pennsylvania), then a variety shop owner, publisher, journalist, sports manager, and essayist (in Dakota Territory), and writer/traveling salesman/journalist in Chicago. It was at the age of forty, with four sons, a wife, thousands of miles behind him, Frank Baum had failed at just about everything he'd done when he struck upon samadhi in the winter of 1898, and with a single pencil, scribbling on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper all over his house, created The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

For both Dorothy and Toto, the journey to, through, and from Oz is a transcendent and adventurous experience which ultimately reflected Baum's zigzagging across the cities and frontier of fin de siecile America. This journey indeed, is as much spiritual as it is literary and historical. While Baum's Oz is, at the end of the day, a children's story, it is filled with allusions and intended interpretations as a spiritual search for one's inner Self. What we know today as "New Age" religions aren't really as "new" as the name would imply, but in fact, have their roots in the writings and teachings in a late 1800s school of thought known as theosophy. What began as philosophical wanderings of a Helena Blavatsky fused ancient traditions of occultists, old religions (think pagans), and Eastern thought. Indeed, the American theosophical movement came to a head with the (unrelated and unplanned) arrival of Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Worlds Fair (Columbian Exposition) Parliament of World's Religions, representing Hinduism (great and interesting sidestories about him too), which introduced to the West Hindu and Buddhist modes of thought.

Schwartz does a wonder job describing Baum's entrance to a metaphysical world was aided by his Matilda Joslyn Gage, his over-the-top (and historically overlooked), crazy-liberal feminist mother-in-law who hung out with likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Indeed, Matilda served as the archtype for both the Wicked and evil Witch of the West as well as the saintly, wise, and beautiful Good Witch of the North.

In a book which is a fine mixture of history, biography, philosophy, and literary criticism, Schwartz provides an engaging work which keeps the reader aware of both the beauty of the story as well as its deep, deep roots.

Most of our culture is an import. Throughout an American's childhood, we will find ourselves familiar with Little Red Riding Hood, King Arthur, Rumpelstiltskin, and Snow White, but The Wonderful Wizard of Oz's greatest contribution was the simple matter that it was the first (and perhaps only) thoroughly American fairy tale. Each component of this story sags with the weight of the closing of the frontier, capturing imaginations of the pioneer who was first terrified of the tornado, saw none by grey on the Kansan prairie, in the Exposition, was dazzled by the glimmer of an astounding city powered by power-mad wizards of science and industry, and sought to wash away the embodiment of their deepest fears.

While I know this description is not likely one of my best, this is certainly a good read

04 September, 2009

More thoughts on a book.

My most recent read took me much longer to get through than I would have liked, but it was well worth it. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is a history of science through the Romantic Era (1780s-1830s) told through English science. Possibly the best nonfiction I've read in some time, Holmes himself appears to be more of an historian of romanticist literature and history, and in the undying words of my brother-in-law, an "englishist." What sets this apart from many of the other scientific histories I've read is Holmes' sense of literature and poetry itself. The story-telling like style (focusing primarily on three figures in English science, Joseph Banks, William Herschel, and Humphrey Davy) does a wonderful job of telling the interconnectedness of science, philosophy, literature, politics, and society readily apparent in 18th century society as it is today. Indeed, it was not uncommon for the likes of the young Michael Faraday or Caroline Herschel to have had dinner parties and correspondence with the literary and philosophical luminaries such as Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and Kant.

Personally, I have always had an affection for romanticist works, in its epic grasp of all love, hope, power, beauty, misery and trembling universality. What really pulled this book together was the recognition that science and poetry themselves are in fact two sides of the same coin: in searching for the innate beauty of the world. The story of tropic, polar, aerial, electric, and chemical exploration in as the eighteenth century passed into the nineteenth has a true sense of its place in history as well. Politically, the romanticists saw the mental decline of George III, the loss of the American colonies, Napoleon's rise, fall and rise again, the establishment of the Regency, and eventually the passage into the Victorian era with her coronation in 1837. Moreover, as so many places in history show, a time of philosophical transition (called "paradigm shifts" by Thomas Kuhn) is truly fascinating... in the early Industrial Era, Britain and Europe as a whole was beginning to shake off the last of the medieval hangers-on. Much of science in the early modern era (16th-early 18th c.) was closely tied to philosophy and religion of the time. Many men of science were deeply pious (such as Newton, Kepler, Galileo), and spoke freely of God in their writings; however, their view of the cosmos, as soon through the lens of the natural world led to the rise of Deist philosophies in the 1700s. By the end of the 1800s, "natural philosophy" which often speculated on the nature of Creation and of Man as well as its subject manner evolved into the science we know today, objectively of its own philosophies.

Many interpreters of Romantic poetry cite Coleridge and Keats as decrying science as robbing nature of is mystery and beauty. Holmes, however, attacks this interpretation, showing how in literature itself of the era, scientists are to be highly praised and loved as those who can truly see the magnificent, beautiful, unity of the Universe. Seen through the awe-inspiring knowledge when Herschel announced an infinite Universe with worlds beyond our imagination. It was seen in Davy's initial exploration into gases and human consciousness itself. This was seen when French ballooneers first saw the world from on top.... when looking down, human borders and faults melted away into the beauty of a landscape from miles up.

I've been making mental notes for myself to get poetry books off of the shelf now that I've read this. It is always an amazing reminder to see the world itself as a living poem

02 September, 2009

It's been a couple week.s The latter half of August was dubbed "vacation." Upon both of our returns to the outside life, I really, really miss Meg. I suppose that it would be nice to be able to commute with her into the city.

So as for thoughts. For a period, I considered posting on here my progress through Dan Brown's bestseller, Angels & Demons, which I snatched-up for a McDonald's nutritional beach reading. The beach never happened and neither did the book. I mean, I would like to finish it up, and it's not that it's a difficult book to slog through, but it's just.... bad. I guess that I should hold out a full review until I've completed the novel, but at this point, it feels more like an assignment than a read.

I also got out the old telescope for some summer viewing. You've likely seen a very bright star in the western sky not long after sunset (last night, it was close to the Moon), this is Jupiter, and it's particularly bright because right now, it's at opposition, meaning that we are seeing the entire planet illuminated (think of a full Moon brighter than a half Moon) while it's opposite us form the Sun (hence its rise as the Sun sets). Anyway, in the two-inch Newtonian, I managed to get a good (although brief, the mirror soon fell out) view of Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Moreover, as this is the 400th anniversary of these satellites' first viewing, I felt this oddly appropriate. There was a fascinating shared connection to astronomers past in doing this. My telescope is a fairly simple one (probably not unlike many in the 17th and 18th centuries), with a relatively low resolving power, so my view of the Jovian system was simple: one large dot with four smaller dots surrounding it in a perfect line. Later that evening, it occurred to me that my generation has, in fact, been spoiled by our view of thew planets. For centuries before, viewing Jupiter and its moons was a simple series of bright dots. While further structure would be determined through better observations, the paradigm shift came with the Voyager 1 and spacecrafts. The close-up views of the outer planets has defined our imaginations of these for the last thirty years. This did no less than a beautiful job in inspiring at least two generations of professional, amateur, and casual astronomers and brought the beauty and magnificence of our corner of the heavens to our front steps.

Re-discovering these as Galileo did was awe-inspiring.