The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Two questions

Posted on: November 26, 2007

Indulge me as I deride yet another publicist who has never read my blog. This lovely lady offered her author up for “guest blogging” and Q & As about his…what’s that there in the second line? Historical fiction.


Apparently the first of this author’s instalment was a “well-crafted…A Bronze Age historical romance with brains as well as brawn, ripe for a sequel”. Does that sound like me at all?

My other question is about epic translations. My recent enjoyment of Paradise Lost and Beowulf has inspired me to acquire more of ye olde epics. I’ve got the Homer stuff and two different translations of The Song of Roland (W.S. Merwin and Dorothy L. Sayers Glyn S. Burgess) which I have not yet read. (If you have any opinions on either, please share it in comments). After looking up some references in one of Mercé Rodoreda’s short stories I developed a keener interest in trying out Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m dead set against the Fagle’s so there’s no use mentioning his. I even took a peek into it on Amazon, compared it to Fitzgerald’s and had my expectations confirmed. The campus connection to the academics journal is cracked right now, but when it works I plan to see what reviews pop up there too. Fitzgerald’s is in the lead right now but I am open to other suggestions. I’m sure my campus libraries would have most which would allow me to compare and make a final judgement.

Dante’s Inferno is another one. I know it’s only the first canticle in Divine Comedy but, you know, must start out small. I’m very attached to the idea of getting one of the Penguin Classics translations done by Mark Musa because of the William Blake illustration detail on the cover. I’m a little worried about Anthony L Pelligrini’s comment, in the Modern Language Journal, that it’s the “most contemporary” translation around (or was in the 70s) but we’ll see how that goes. It isn’t the only one Penguin offers and apparently it’s one of the top poems translated into English, judging by the number of published translations. So there’s a lot to consider.

Now Gilgamesh. Chapters search doesn’t turn up much recent offerings beside a Penguin Classics translation by Andrew George. Amazon, how ever, drums up a lot more, so I’ll have quite a job culling it down since, of my selections, I’m most ignorant about this one. (It has a flood and was found on tablets and…stuff.)

If you know of any other stupendous, foundations-of-the-world epics I should know about, or just fun ones, please mention it in comments as well.

Finally, I am in that rare mood that calls for a meme.

Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?

No, I don’t and I keep on forgetting to ask my mother what she remembers of it. I knew I could read some newspaper articles by age 5.

What do you find most challenging to read?

Hmmm. Fiction that falls outside of my expectations but is not badly written. I’m then at a (sometimes temporary) loss as to how to read, enjoy and interpret it. Recent books like this have been The Owl Service by Alan Garner and Shriek by VanderMeer, which has again fallen to the way side. I’m less sure about the former’s quality though. We’ll see when I do a quick reread tomorrow. (It’s a short book.)

What are your library habits?

I am in an out of the main university library almost every day, but occasionally take breaks in the several others that we have on-campus. Along with the different departmental libraries, the three religious colleges on-campus all have their own as well.

I’ve made up with the public library and hop in ever so often for Books in Canada and The Walrus. I occasionally check the New York Times Book Review to see whether it’s really as uninteresting as the last time. And now I may go there for some manga.
Have your library habits changed since you were younger?

Yes. I rarely went to the library when I was younger. In Montego Bay I remember going to the St. James Parish library with my childhood best friend for private tutorials in preparation for the Common Entrance Examination. (In Jamaica one could take it at 10 years of age, which I did. Our version also had a third component, which was…maybe General Knowledge? I dunno. I supposed it was stressful but really all I remember was that all of us looked forward to the “special” lunches our parents would bring to us during the break — no packed lunches that day, oh no — which was usually fast food. I may have gotten KFC. The Jamaican version’s food tastes much better than its Canadian counterpart btw. I don’t know what taste-killing ingredients they put in their fast food here but it works excellently.)

The second time was years later, in 6th form, when I borrowed a Stephen King novel from the St. Andrew Parish library. That’s it.

How has blogging changed your reading life?

As others have said it’s made me a sharper, more thorough reader, and increased by a monumental degree the diversity of my selections.

How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?

Fairly often. They will always get mentioned but I may not spend a lot of words of them. Sometimes I simply don’t feel like devoting a post to it or I may not have a lot to say about it.

What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand books stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other?

I’d estimate that about 70% of my books are bought new. Of that batch, probably 50% is bought in a brick & mortar store, almost all of that at the local indie, Wordsworth; my online purchases go to Chapters. For most of undergrad the opposite was true and I only went to Wordsworth for the odd purchase here and there, but Chapters succeeded at pushing me away.

First they got rid of the student discount for the membership card, and then got rid of the points programme that allowed me to get free coupons. This happened, coincidentally, when my book spending went up: regular monthly trips to the physical store along with online purchases of at least $39 so I could get free shipping. What was I getting in return for all this? Some lousy 10% discount on in-store stuff, a little more on-line and (the supposedly big draw) 30% off bestsellers (40% if you were a member). The problem with that is that I’m not a best-seller buyer.

On the other hand the Wordsworth employees were super friendly and could tell me about different Don Quixote translations, Penguins book design history, Proust, Murakami, and why the hell publishers print some of their lit fic titles with those annoying Ye Olde Raggedy Pages.

Anyway. Of my 30% pretty much all of it goes to the local used book stores. In my town we have five distinctive stores, all with their own niche. Sometimes I go used online, but not often.

What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?

People who use highlighters and pen in library books. I don’t really mind discreet scribbles in pencil.

Do you ever read for pleasure at work?

I don’t have a regular 9-5 job.
When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?

I don’t, generally, unless I’m versed in their reading taste. I can count the number of those people on one hand. It’s easy to decide from there: just think of what they haven’t purchased yet.


11 Responses to "Two questions"

I got that same request and deleted it as spam, geez, read the blogs first people!

Wish I could answer your question on epic translations, not my field but I can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

Quite like your meme answers…I like The Walrus but haven’t read it in a few years.

I’ll weigh in on the translations issue:

Re Fagels: Like you, I don’t get what the big deal is about him. At my previous school, we adopted his Iliad after teaching the Lattimore, and I was struck by how Fagles’ reads, to my ear, like he’s writing a novelization of a film, like one of those Shakespeare-Made-Easy atrocities, but for Homer this time. Homer’s actual tone is something I have, you know, zero knowledge of, but I have to admit that Lattimore’s formal tone, the repetition of phrases, etc., felt, well, “old” in the best sense of that term. Anyway, at that same school we used the Fitzgerald Aeneid, which I liked very much: readable but without being dumbed down.

In college we read the Ciardi Inferno, which I liked. Pinsky’s translation isn’t scholarly but it does a fair imitation of Dante’s terza rima.

As for Gilgamesh, I’ve also taught that, out of a Norton World Masterpieces anthology. I don’t have that with me, so I don’t know who did that translation. But I will say that you’ll have more shocks of recognition than just its Flood story.

The Mayan epic poem, the Popol Vuh, contains the Maya creation myth. My translations are in Spanish (including a nice side-by-side Quiche/Spanish version). but I don’t have that at hand just now, either. I want to say it’s a Fondo de Cultura publication, but I’m not sure.

Anyway. I hope some of this helps. But you’re right about Fagles, as far as I’m concerned (for what that may be worth).

Oh, epic translations… I read the Iliad last year and rather liked it. I think it was the Butler translation. I still remember gory details.

This year I wanted to try Dante’s Divine Comedy, but I have yet to find a translation I like, especially as I normally get these books from I found the beginning hard to follow… maybe we could team up to encourage each other?

In another century, I recently tried and enjoyed Medieval epic romances by Chretien de Troyes: there are chivalry and gentle damsels in distress! (and english translations are available on gutenberg too!)

Verbivore has The Walrus been around for that long? I thought it was pretty new! Maybe it simply got a makeover.

John B. oh yay, someone who agrees with me about Fagles! I detected that exact same “Shakespeare-Made-Easy” tone to it and Lattimore read so, so much better in comparison. It’s his translations of the Homer epics that I own.

Thanks for the other recommendations but especially for the Mayan epic! I’ve been taking my time through the South American VQR issue so it can serve as a nice lead-in to that. I’ll look up some info on that Norton book with the Gilgamesh.

Smithereens I’ve tried bits and pieces of the Butler translation since I think it’s available online for free. Yes, one of my most prominent memories from TThe Iliad is how graphically violent it was because it was completely unexpected.

I definitely would not mind a partner in reading Divine Comedy it really does help to finish books that I might otherwise have taken longer to read. Next year maybe? I will keep it in mind.

Some romances would be good too. It’s not French but I do have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And I love that Arthurian stuff. Thanks for the suggestions.

I like Fitzgerald, too, in general, but I haven’t read the Fagles Aeneid yet.

So funny that you were asked to feature a romance writer in your blog. I had a guy want me to feature his book, but he didn’t want to send me an ARC. He wanted me to interview him about a book I haven’t read and that he wasn’t willing to send me!

A ‘quick reread’ of “The Owl Service” will tell you nothing. And “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is a more substantial than ‘a flood’, ‘tablets’ and ‘stuff’. That’s rather like calling The Bible or The Koran ‘self-help books’.

Alan Garner.

I was reading The Walrus back in 2003 and 4, not that long ago but still…

Dew yes, I think mine was of a similar bent, although I didn’t bother to ask for an ARC — the publicist certainly didn’t offer the book for perusal.

Alan Garner, I was being fatuous, the bracketed comments solely made to highlight my ignorance professed in the previous sentence.

Thanks for commenting!

verbivore ahh, ok, that was around the first time I tried it too. It actually was that long ago…I can’t believe we’re already near the end of 2007.

[…] my way through the language and trying to get a better handle on my reactions, when the author appeared and told me that my efforts are hopeless, the book will “tell me nothing”. Now my brain […]

I’ve read every epic you mentioned, and they’re all worth your time. Let me recommend some more:


The Poem of El Cid, from Spain. The Merwin translation is excellent.

The Nibelungenlied, from Germany. The recent Burton Raffel translation looks good.

Strong second to Chretien de Troyes.


Orlando Inamorato by Boiardo and Orlando Furioso by Ariosto.

The Lusiads, by Camoes, from Portugal.

Jerusalem Delivered, by Tasso. With Milton, sort of the end of the line for the traditional epic.

Thanks so much for all of the recommendations! I’m only superficially familiar with the Ariosto works, so whatever I choose will be quite the adventure.

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