Why We Need Diverse Books

Imagine a triangle.

That's a right triangle. I didn't tell you to imagine a right triangle. I told you to imagine a triangle in general. 

That's isosceles. You have to try again. We're not after particular angles or sides here. Try to be blind to those. Only see triangles as they are beyond these differences.

  You being deliberately obtuse? 

Now, if this were just satire of the real world instead of open criticism and I were writing for The Big City Review of Triangle Depictions I'd probably tell you, "Finally, ecce triangulus! This here is the naked triangle condition that shines through in every triangle ever drawn!"

But this here is just an equilateral triangle. It's not The Triangle, because well, there's no such thing. You cannot imagine an abstract triangle. You'll always imagine a particular one, be it isosceles or scalene. And when you draw a triangle, you'll draw a particular one and everything you want to show about triangles in general will have to be done through that particular shape. There's no escaping these differences. Representation - in your mind or on paper - is by definition of particulars. Keeping to equilateral triangles your whole life won't change that fact. It won't bring you closer to the ideal triangle. It will, if anything, distort and narrow your idea of what a triangle must be.
And if your mind cannot do more than this for 3 sticks put together, why would you think it can do it for a concept as complex as "human being"?

Ulysses Read-Along: First Impressions

For last week, Emily suggested as a discussion topic first impressions, and I want to talk about how I felt about Ulysses the first time I picked it up and how that changed.

To be honest, the first time I tried reading Ulysses, in high school, I did not like it at all, and I only made it as far as Aeolus through sheer stubbornness. I think my dislike was due to the fact that I never got immersed. I have one of those heavily-annotated editions, where the notes double the thickness of the volume. I figured the notes are there because they are important, because you cannot get everything out of the book without them. And I did want to get everything out of it. So I thought I should read all the notes; not as I encountered them, but to have a master check-up at least every few pages. Of course, then I would need to re-read the text with the notes in mind. Except I wouldn't remember half the explanations (many of which didn't mean anything without an even more detailed context of 1904 Dublin), and I would have to do this a couple of times more. I could appreciate how smart some of the connections were, or how elegantly Joyce could reference in a phrase a story that took a page of explanations in the notes, but re-reading something you've just read isn't very fun. So my first impression of Ulysses was that it's a clever book, but also i) very boring, and ii) pointless to read since I will never get all of it. 

I was about to make the same mistake when I started again, but then a birdcage hung in the sunny window of her house when she was a girl... happened and it was so beautiful and I just wanted to read on and know the story. I didn't stop again until Proteus, where I found it fascinating, rather than frustrating, to read up on Aristotle in order to be able to follow Stephen's thoughts. Now I make notes of things that I don't get but make me curious, and I try to keep the balance between looking up details and staying with the book. And of course I will not get everything out of it, but that's ok.

This time around, I actually have impressions about characters and situations and language, and not only about the book. I find Stephen adorably obnoxious, I think Buck Mulligan is funny but I empathize with Stephen's cringing around him, and I like Bloom a lot. I also have a very long, very fast-growing, list of phrases and sentences that I love. 

A Bloomsday Read-Along

Emily from Song of My Shelf and Lori from The Coffee Girl are hosting a read-along of Ulysses. When I learned it was going to be very laid-back, I decided it was the thing for me. So I'm participating in The Great Bloomsday Read-Along. Here are my answers to the start-up questionnaire.

1. Introduce yourself.
Hi, I'm Irina, though I usually go by Iris around here. I'm a Physics Master's student whose favorite activities include reading, power-walking (not good for your knees, I know), and taking random naps (not good for your productivity, I know). My taste in books is erratic, and so is my reading schedule. 

2. Have you read Ulysses before? Any other Joyce? Any attempts?
I've read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Attempted Ulysses half-heartedly in high-school, and again with more enthusiasm last summer. I didn't get halfway through the book on any of these attempts. 

3. Are you feeling nauseous?
Does anyone even need to ask?

Review: The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett

The title of this post is a lie: I don't actually want to review Pratchett's The Bromeliad Trilogy (also known as The Nome Trilogy), but rather to gush over how great it is and to tell you all how it blew my mind when I was about 10.

I love this series the absurdly protective way reserved for childhood classics and I credit it with a big part of my interest in social change and activism. (I also spend a lot of energy aggressively trying to get all my friends to read it; and I would like to take the opportunity to ask you all to join the campaign for Claudia's education NOW). 

The Nome Trilogy consists, unsurprisingly, of three books (Truckers, Diggers, Wings), and is, also unsurprisingly, about Nomes. Nomes are tiny people, about 10 cm high, who live on Earth unnoticed by humans. In Truckers, a group of outdoor Nomes, lead by Masklin and Grimma, find their way to Arnold Bros. (est 1905), a department store. There they meet the inside Nomes, who have lived under the floors of the store for generations and who don't react well to the unfamiliar (most inside Nomes hold the religious belief that ‘The Store’ contains 'All Things Under One Roof', and so there can be no “outside”, while the more scientifically inclined have devised the theory that outside Nomes would have pointy heads, as this shape is more fit for unpredictable weather). The outside Nomes have owned, since times immemorial, The Thing, a mostly useless metal cube. In the presence of the electricity in the store, The Thing powers up, revealing that it's the board computer of the ship that brought the Nomes to Earth, long ago. When they learn that the store is about to be demolished, the Nomes have to work together, navigating religious systems and social norms, as well as personal antipathies. They manage to escape the store in a truck, and find a new home at an abandoned quarry. 

In Diggers, the Nomes have more or less adjusted to life in The Quarry, but they are continuously threatened by human presence. A religious sign prompts Masklin, Gurder (a religious leader), and Angalo (a prodigy engineer) to leave the quarry, going out to the investigate a nearby airport, taking the Thing with them. In their absence, those left behind have to deal with a new threat: the quarry is to be reopened. Grimma leads the defense efforts, sabotaging equipment, locking up the quarry, and even attempting to communicate with humans. In the end, the Nomes are driven out again, escaping on an excavator. 

Wings is the story of Masklin's, Gurder's and Angalo's journey. The Thing convinces them that they should take it to a satellite launch, where it can attempt to contact the ship. The Nomes end up in Florida, where they meet other tribes of Nomes and realize there must be more to the Nomanity than they thought. Humans also have to deal with the existence of Nomes, as their spaceship lands. The Nomes use the ship to save the ones that are escaping the quarry, then leave Earth. But they know they must return, for all the other Nomes, as well as for humans, who might be capable of intelligent communication.