Show & Tell (Part 2)

In prose the “show don’t tell” rule is a way to make a story more alive, and more interesting. In poetry, though, showing instead of telling is a way to pack a lot of punch into a few words. Continue Reading


Beer Of the Week (February 11, 2007).

Beer of the Week (February 11, 2007)

Because literature, like baseball, would be a lot less interesting without alcohol.

This week’s beer of the week is: Pyamid Apricot Ale.
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Winter Wonderlibrary.

For us bibliophiles reading is a year-round preoccupation, but there’s something extra special about being able to glance up from the black and white pages of a book and watch falling snow. And, as these pictures of the Vanderbilt University Library show, a surprise snowfall can give extra character and beauty to an elegant old building.


Don’t Steal This Book!

While the debate rages over whether paper is really dead and whether libraries should keep trying to preserve their print collections when they should instead be going all digital, the question occasionally comes up: Why is print still valuable? Continue Reading


Show & Tell 101.

Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class has been subjected to this admonition: “Show, don’t tell.” What exactly does that mean, though? Most creative writing teachers that I’ve had pull the old “Show, don’t tell” out of their hat when they can’t think of what else to say, and very few of them have given an example. They’ve been guilty of telling, not showing.

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Beer Of the Week (February 4, 2007).

Beer of the Week (February 4, 2007)

Because literature, like baseball, would be a lot less interesting without alcohol.

This week’s beer of the week is: Left Hand Milk Stout.
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It’s A Guy (And Girl) Thing.

William Sleator is a writer who mainly writes for teens. His books fall in the science fiction or fantasy category, and they’re consistently imaginative, surprising, sometimes frightening, and thought-provoking. Continue Reading



Time Is On Their Side

Books are the way of the future. That might seem like a strange, shortsighted, backward, ignorant, or even downright idiotic thing to say, but books?real, physical bundles of paper, ink, glue, and cloth, have been around a long time, and I have good reasons for believing they’re going to stay around for a long time.

Several recent attempts have been made to replace books with something newer, hipper, and more user-friendly than the old traditional paper book. The e-book goes back at least as far as 1996 when CD-ROMs were supposed to be the wave of the future. Specialized handheld e-book devices like the SoftBook were available as early as 1999, although the SoftBook is no longer produced after the company was purchased in 2000. Its $599.00 price tag may have been part of its problem, although 5-hour battery life probably didn’t help either. Now, if you can find a supplier, you can buy the REB 1200 for just $700.00, and get up to ten hours of reading time before you have to recharge the battery. I know it seems like I’m taking cheap shots at electronic publishing by bringing out its most obvious failures, but they demonstrate an important point: electronic devices go out of date very quickly. Some turn into expensive paperweights within less than a year. Obviously downloading e-books to devices like the iPod, Blackberry, or other media players and PDAs is the future for electronic books just as it is for music, photographs, and videos. But do we really want to start throwing out all our old books and clearing library shelves? Books have their disadvantages: they’re susceptible to fire, water damage, insect infestation, mold, and, perhaps worst of all, time. Beginning in the mid-1800’s publishers started using acidic paper that’s been self-destructing for decades. Paper doesn’t necessarily have to turn yellow and crumble, but it will if it’s acidic paper, and even if it’s stored in ideal conditions. Ironically books published in 1800 have a longer shelf-life than books published in 1900. While publishers have been using alkaline paper (which is more environmentally friendly and lasts longer) since the mid-1980’s the changeover hasn’t been universal, and even if it were that’s approximately one-hundred and forty years of books that are crumbling away. And yet the problems faced by traditional books are minor compared to the problems of e-books, no matter where they’re stored. Hand-held devices, servers, hard drives, floppy disks, and all forms of electronic storage are susceptible to fire, water damage, insect infestation, mold, and, of course, time. Time is an even bigger factor as both hardware and software become obsolete. A document saved in the Windows 95 version of Microsoft Word is unreadable in the Windows XP version, and if you try to open it with any other text program you’ll get gibberish. In my lifetime music and audio recording have gone from vinyl LPs and reel-to-reel machines to 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s and other digital formats. Each time there’s a new format we have to invest in new players, and occasionally let go of old favorites, or keep the clunky old machine. Electronic books can also be easily controlled and manipulated by outside sources, especially in an age when computers are interconnected. Those who don’t like what a e-book says can pull the plug, drain the battery, smash the screen, and they can also delete, corrupt, or manipulate the file. An e-book can move easily from one computer to another, which is a strength and a weakness. E-books have to be used in conjunction with, not as a replacement for, traditional books because they’re fine in the short-term but they’re unreliable for long-term storage. My point here is that, when it comes to books especially, we have to keep an eye toward the future.

At this point I’ve lost most of the tech-savvy, the programmers, the technophiles, and others who think I’m strange, shortsighted, backward, ignorant, or even downright idiotic, that I’m some kind of neo-Luddite who just hates technology. In fact I love technology. The irony of writing this in a blog isn’t lost on me. I’m all for electronic publishing. I’m not in favor of electronic publishing in spite of the problems associated with it; I’m in favor of it because of the problems with traditional books. The Internet revolution has been compared to the Gutenberg revolution, when books, freed from the old, time and labor intensive process of hand-copying, could be reproduced quickly, easily, and cheaply, and distributed widely. As long ago as 1998 (well, time is relative) I heard it suggested that the Internet would mean the end of libraries having to store and preserve books. Let’s not leap before we look, though. The e-book has some incredible advantages: it can be read anywhere by anyone with access to a computer, it can be shared or copied. Fragile manuscripts, which are normally off limits to anyone except really dedicated scholars because they have to be kept in closely controlled environments, can be scanned and made widely available. Scholarly periodicals are being loaded into gigantic collections, both by publishers and by new companies. These collections are called aggregators, and the advantage of the aggregator is that, while traditionally patrons could only look through a single periodical at a time, now they can search thousands, limiting their searches in numerous ways to help them find the information they need. The fact that scholars don’t always know what they’re looking for isn’t a problem, because electronic searching, like traditional searching, can still lead to unexpected sources. Ironically when I was researching this I found information about e-books in a bound book called From Revolution to Revolution: Perspectives on Publishing & Bookselling 1501-2001 by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), and I found information about acidic and alkaline paper in an electronic database created and maintained by the company Proquest. In spite of the problems associated with Google’s book scanning program, which include both copyright problems and unresolved issues about the reliability of their searches, I like the idea in principle. Scanning books and making them searchable, especially for academic research, is a really, really good idea. When a university library has an e-book every student can read it without having to worry about someone just ahead of them checking it out first.

The other argument in favor of e-books is that it’s what the kids want. Because young people are growing up in a world of technology, so the argument goes, they’re not willing to use those old-fashioned books. And I have to ask, what parents, what adults, believe kids should get whatever they want? The advantages of e-books shouldn’t eclipse the advantage of traditional books. And those of us who are a little older, who left college behind and have been in the real world for a few years now, have seen the very thing I keep coming back to: the rapid obsolescence of technological devices.

E-books are not a substite for traditional books, but a supplement. I’m not holding on to some romantic notion of books as sacred objects, but I also believe we should be realistic about technology’s pitfalls as well as its potential. The book, or the scroll, or even the stone tablet is a data storage system whose only power source is the reader, that’s impervious to viruses, and that makes tampering obvious. It doesn’t get any more high tech than that.


We Don’t Need Another Hero

In October 2004 the poet and translator Stephen Mitchell published a new version of the epic of Gilgamesh. Probably best known for his translations of Rilke, Mitchell is the first writer to publish a version with the current war in Iraq continuing, a fact which he mentions in his introduction. Like most versions, including the 1984 translation by John Gardener and John Maier, Mitchell’s was based on the Akkadian “standard” version written by a priest named Sin-leqi-unnini, who combined elements of the story that were over a thousand years old into a single coherent work. The elements, as well as the name Gilgamesh (or Bilgames) originated in the earlier Sumerian culture. After the Assyrian Empire finally fell the epic was lost for more than two-thousand years. When European archaeologists in the late Nineteenth Century started digging in the desert of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) Gilgamesh was rediscovered. It’s been popular ever since. (At the end of this essay is a partial list of translations and versions of Gilgamesh published just since 1984).

What makes this story of a king in an alien culture so fascinating? Maybe it’s because, while the The cultures of Sumer and Akkad aren’t nearly as familiar as Rome or Greece, which gave us The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid, or even that Discovery Channel staple, Egypt, Gilgamesh is recognizable. Unlike Beowulf, who comes from an equally alien yet temporally closer culture, and who is like a modern super-hero—solitary, noble, and virtuous—Gilgamesh is post-modern. He’s deeply flawed, and terribly human. For Nineteenth Century scholars the Epic was fascinating because it included an alternate version of the Flood Myth from Genesis, but for all readers the scope of the story’s themes is its main attraction. Gilgamesh touches on leadership, responsibility, mortality, civilization, wildness, loss, and, most significantly, friendship. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu complete each other even from the beginning, when Gilgamesh, the brutal tyrant, is little more than an animal, while Enkidu, the wild man, is civilized even when he lives on the fringe of civilization. Gilgamesh and Enkidu form a bond of friendship that’s stronger than any other in literature. They support, comfort, and complete each other. When Enkidu dies Gilgamesh tries to put his grief into words, and delivers an eloquent elegy, but his actions say more than his words. With Enkidu he could face demons and the wrath of the gods, but confronted for the first time with death, Gilgamesh withdraws from the society he helped build. He goes through the classic stages of grief: anger, denial, then, as he passes off the world’s map, he enters a powerful metaphor for depression:

When he had gone one double-hour,

thick is the darkness, there is no light;

he can see neither behind him nor ahead of him.

This is repeated with very little variation until

At the nearing of eleven double-hours, light breaks out.

At the nearing of twelve double-hours, the light is steady.

(quoted from Gilgamesh, translated by John Gardner and John Maier, with the assistance of Richard A. Henshaw.)

Next come bargaining, as he tries, and fails, to achieve immortality. Finally, with his return home, he looks up at the walls of his city and finds acceptance.

I’ve read numerous versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh in English, and yet it’s impossible for me to say any one is better than the others. Gardner and Maier, whose version introduced me to the epic, produced a scholarly work complete with extensive notes and appendices, using Hittite and Sumerian texts to fill gaps in the Akkadian. Versions by Maureen Kovacs and Andrew George have fewer notes, but readers interested in just the story might be inclined to go with the more poetic versions like those by David Ferry or Stephen Mitchell. As poets and translators of poetry, their versions read like great poetry. A version by English poet Derrek Hines spices up the epic with slang and anachronistic references to X-rays, cigarettes, flashbulbs, and football. Hines also tacks on a new ending: the peaceful death of Gilgamesh, which is unrelated either to the Akkadian story or a Sumerian poem about the death of Gilgamesh.

What makes the story powerful is, of course, that Gilgamesh’s experiences of friendship, loss, and grief, are shared by all of us. That we will all have and lose friends, that we must confront and come to terms with the mortality of those we love as well as our own, is what keeps Gilgamesh coming back, and it’s why we keep going back to Gilgamesh.

Publications since 1984 when a translation done by John Maier and the late John Gardner was first published include:

The Epic of Gilgamesh by Maureen Kovacs (1989),

The Epic of Gilgamesh by Summaya Damaluji and Lamià¡ Al-Gelani (published in Baghdad in 1989),

Gilgamesh : a new rendering in English verse by David Ferry (1992),

He who saw everything: a verse translation of the epic of Gilgamesh by Robert Temple (1992),

The epic of Gilgamesh by Sumaya Shabandar (1994)

Gilgamesh! : reannotated revision of “I Gilgamesh,” the synthesismyth by G.T. Byron (1995)

The Epic of Gilgamesh by Danny P. Jackson (1997),

The epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian by Andrew George (1999),

Gilgamesh, a retelling by Stephan Grundy (2000),

A Norton Critical Edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster with contributions by Douglas Frayne and Gary Beckman (2001)

Gilgamesh by Derrek Hines (2002)

Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell (2004)

The Play of Gilgamesh by Edwin Morgan (2005)

 

Gilgamesh: A Verse Play by poet Yusef Komunyakka (2006),

A novel of the story, simply titled Gilgamesh The King was written by science fiction writer Robert Silverberg (1985)

 

There are also at least three children’s versions:

Gilgamesh the King by Ludmila Zeman (1992)

The Hero King Gilgamesh by Irving L. Finkel (1998)

Gilgamesh The Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean and David Parkins (2003).

A version of the epic is also included in Myths from Mesopotamia by Stephanie Dalley (1989)

Gilgamesh II , a graphic novel in four volumes by Jim Starlin and Steve Oliff (1989), published by DC Comics and “recommended for mature readers”

And if that weren’t enough Gilgamesh appears, or is referred to, frequently in popular culture, including the novel Gilgamesh by Joan London (2001), about an Australian woman who falls in love with an Armenian man, and a mystery novel titled Gilgamesh by Jo Bannister (1989). In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Picard tells an abbreviated version of the story to a captain from an alien culture.