Monthly Archives: February 2015

Greek Tragedy: Sophocles’ Women

One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups.  This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists.  I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah.  The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women.  Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book.  Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published.  Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women.  The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences.  In general, though, they did not do a good job at this.  It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters.  This seems to have also been true in the ancient world.  Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women.  Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters.  Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed.  This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world.  It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins.  Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.

Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters.  His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman:  brave, principled, and loyal.  All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs.  His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.

There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women.  Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close.  Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test.  Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.

Allison Bechdel's test for female inclusion in a script

I am myself a white male.  As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males.  Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market.  Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?”  One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity.  A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas.  My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.

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Why Reading Level Matters for a Writer

This morning I read a fascinating blog article by Shane Snow in which he used two measures of reading level to rank a large number of books, both fiction and non fiction.  His main contention was that many of the most successful books, at least in modern times, are comparatively easy to read.  This makes sense; not many people are going to slog through a novel if the reading level is too challenging for them.  He also drew the inference that blog articles with a lower reading level are much more likely to be shared on social media.  Obviously, these insights are of great interest to me as a writer.  Because the article piqued my interest, and because I’m at the point in writing my own book where I am happy to jump at any distraction, I decided to extend his analysis a bit on my own.

It only took a minute or two to find an open source Java app that calculates the Flesh-Kinkaid Grade Level and Flesh Reading Ease Level of any text or PDF file.  The former gives the number of years of education required to comprehend the writing.  The later is a similar measure, in which a higher score indicates that the work is easier to read.

The first thing I did was to run it on several manuscripts which I have on my laptop.  These included my recently published monograph, the current draft of the nonfiction book I’m writing, and a novel manuscript and three short stories which I am currently trying to sell.  I also ran it on all four of my blogs.

My Own Writing
Nonfiction Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Flesh Reading Ease Level
Books
Current Book Project(1) 12.91 43.67
Monograph (2) 19.10 1.87
Book Average 16.01 22.77
Blogs
This Blog 10.18 56.95
Handyman Kevin Companion Blog 7.97 70.46
Angry Transportation Rants (Dormant) 7.69 68.43
Old School Essays (Dormant) 8.26 60.16
Blog Average 8.53 64.00
Nonfiction Average 11.02 50.26
Fiction (3)
Novel 4.99 80.60
Short Story 5.03 82.03
Short Story 5.67 75.15
Short Story 5.46 76.62
Fiction Average 5.29 78.60
Overall Average 8.73 61.59
NOTES
(1) First draft, about 6% complete
(2) Body text is nearly identical to my MBA thesis
(3) Unpublished manuscripts from my current “slush pile”

Since raw numbers aren’t that intuitive, I plotted a chart.  Notice how the different pieces of writing cluster quite neatly by type.

Reading level scores of several pieces of my owned writing

I was happy to see that both my fiction and my current nonfiction project are in same zones that  Snow found for these types of writing.  This is quite important from a marketability standpoint, since any editor I send them to would be instantly turned off if the reading level were too high or low.

My blogs fall in the middle, which makes sense since they are basically nonfiction, but are written more casually than a nonfiction book.  However, going by Snow’s article, they are probably written at too high a reading level to be shared much.  In fact, I don’t get many shares compared to other bloggers.  I think I can live with that, since I tend to target my blogging towards my fellow writers.  I suspect that you people are comfortable reading at a higher level than the general public.

My monograph, Freight Forwarding Cost Estimation: An Analogy Based Approach, appears to be nearly unreadable to anyone without a graduate degree in operations research.  I suppose that explains why sales haven’t exactly skyrocketed.  It is what it is, though–an adaptation of my master’s thesis.  My committee loved it.

I think there is real benefit to a writer knowing that the reading level of his work is appropriate to the target audience.

Of course, being a Great Books fan, my next move was to run the app on all the Great Books that I have written about so far on this blog, as well as the next few I plan to cover.

Selected Great Books
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Flesh Reading Ease Level
Homer
Iliad 4.48 78.58
Odyssey 3.93 80.98
Average 4.21 79.78
Hebrew Bible (1) 7.57 76.51
Aeschylus
House of Atreus 2.23 90.86
Other Plays 3.24 85.18
Average 2.81 87.61
Sophocles 1.86 90.83
Herodotus 11.75 60.37
Euripides
Hippolytus; Bacchae 4.73 83.72
Medea 4.98 81.14
Average 4.81 82.86
Thucydides 13.34 49.67
Aristophanes
Clouds 2.05 86.65
Birds 5.47 74.76
Frogs 2.67 84.57
Average 3.40 81.99
Plato
Apology, Crito & Phaedo 8.03 70.01
Gorgias 9.15 63.57
Meno 8.51 64.49
Phaedrus 10.05 60.85
Protagoras 9.11 64.30
Republic 8.78 65.42
Sophist 9.32 59.56
Symposium 10.36 60.59
Theaetetus 9.54 61.07
Average 8.99 64.53
Aristotle
Ethics 12.21 55.34
Poetics 10.48 54.32
Politics 11.34 56.35
Average 11.34 55.34
Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass 12.26 58.00
Overall Average 7.49 71.59
NOTES
(1) King James Version

Again, when I plotted the points, they clustered nicely by type.

Reading levels of selected Great Books (as English translations)

These results held a few surprises.  First was the fact that Homer and the Greek dramas are actually written at a very low reading level, at least in terms of sentence and word length.  I believe this is because these works were intended to be recited or performed orally.  Spoken language is always simpler than written language.  Also, these reading level metrics don’t take vocabulary into account.  Epic poetry and Greek drama tend to use a much wider range of words than a novel, for example.  Examining this factor would require some sort of word frequency analysis.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have an “off the shelf” app to conduct a frequency analysis.  I’m sure I could have kludged up a Python script in a couple hours, but that would have been more time than I wanted to spend.

Another surprise was that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I would have expected to show up close to Homer’s epics, is actually a much tougher read.  It graphs down closer to the serious Greek philosophical works.  As I’ve stated before, though, Leaves of Grass is a rather unique work.

The biggest surprise, however, is that the Great Books are written at a lower reading level, on average, than my own work.  Granted, these sample sizes are pretty small.  I suspect, however, that I have stumbled upon another of the factors that contribute to a book being Great:  the authors manage to convey complicated ideas in simple, readable language.

So, besides being a good way to check the appropriateness of my manuscripts for the target audience, does any of this have a practical application?  Well, the fact that books cluster by type means that reading level could be a good way to sort them.  It would be quite simple to modify the Java app into a data mining tool to sort a collection of books into categories like fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc.  I can easily see situations where this could be useful for anyone who has a large collection of e-books with incomplete meta-information.  Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive, I’m looking at you.

Eugenics in the Early 20th Century

A Review of the Book Race Improvement, or Eugenics (1912)

I’ll be getting back to my survey of the Great Books soon, but it has been a while since I wrote a book review, and I read an interesting work yesterday.

Throughout my life, eugenics has been something of a dirty word in intellectual circles. It usually comes up in reference to the social dangers of out of control human genetic science. From the mid twentieth century on numerous science fiction stories had cast totalitarian Eugenicists as antagonists–the best known early example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the Star Trek chronology the Eugenics Wars almost wiped out humanity and produce Khan Noonien Singh and his genetically engineered goons. The trope is still popular today. For example, in David Weber’s long-running Honorverse space opera series the Mesan Alignment, a group dedicated to perfecting the human genotype through genetic engineering and selective breeding, are recurring villains.

Eugenics has so many negative connotations today that we forget that in the early 20th century it was a fairly respectable idea. People were just beginning to grasp a modem understanding of things like hereditary diseases. Watson and Crick would not discover DNA for another five decades, but empirical statistical analysis was already being done to estimate the probabilities that certain human traits would be handed down to peoples offspring. There was real interest in the health implications of heredity and the possibilities of “improving the race” through selective breeding.

In 1912 La Reine Helen Carter wrote the book Eugenics or Race Improvement: A Little Book on a Great Topic. Last month Project Gutenberg released a well-proofread electronic edition. The book is short enough to read in a couple hours and gives a fascinating snapshot of the state of thought in the Eugenics Movement at the end of the Gilded Age.

La Reine Helen Baker lived in Spokane, Washington and was one of the main leaders of the women’s rights movement on the West Coast. Her influence peaked between about 1909 and 1912, when she was in high demand as a speaker at suffragette conventions and orchestrated a two year European grand tour to network with suffragettes internationally. She seems to have shamelessly leveraged this platform, along with a very modern understanding of book publicity, to sell her book and several magazine articles on her other passion: eugenics.

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

In the book she recommends a program of education to teach people about heredity, combined with physical examinations to allow the fittest individuals to marry each other. She also advocates the sterilization of “the unfit”, by which which she means idiots, habitual criminals, and those with serious hereditary diseases. She seems to think that leprosy and most sexually transmitted diseases are hereditary. In a newspaper article of the same period she criticizes the government for funding the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii where “lepers are allowed to marry and perpetuate their kind”. She waivers a bit on the question of whether to sterilize alcoholics, but concludes it probably isn’t necessary since natural selection tends to destroy them and since their children “aren’t always” alcoholic themselves.

She also makes a kind of neo-Malthusian argument. The standard neo-Malthusian position is that technology increases production to counter the exponential rate of population increase. Baker argues that fitter people will produce more and that, “The world does not contain too many people, it only contains too many of the wrong sort of people.”

Baker’s writings are, unsurprisingly, infused with a strong feminist strain. She also seems to have had an ongoing flirtation with socialism and ideas about equality and social welfare appear throughout her book. She calls for paid maternity leave, sex education in school, co-education, easy divorce, and a welfare program for new mothers, including fresh milk, which sounds substantially similar to the USADA’s current Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. In fact, other than paid maternity leave, all of these things now exist in the US. Baker herself was wealthy. In the same newspaper article she claims to personally support three children’s hospital wards. Today we might be tempted to label her as a “limousine liberal”.

She was also prone to the prejudices of her time: She is horrified by the idea of mixed marriage and says that “each race” should look to its own improvement. Once, when invited to speak at a banquet, she was astounded to find out that Chinese women had been invited. She betrays a deep distrust at the idea of women pursuing careers outside the home. She believes that people are criminals because they are born to “degenerate” bloodlines, and that environment plays little role.

The main reason modern intellectuals are so distrustful of eugenics is because we know what happened later. Tthe well-meaning ideas of people like La Reine Helen Baker became fused with the more dangerous pseudo-science of Arianism. By the 1930’s the Nazis had discovered how easy it was to broaden the definition of “degenerate” to include any group that got in their way. Genocide was their preferred tool to protect the “Master Race”, not sterilization. Baker herself specifically states that she is against abortion, infanticide, or “the lethal chamber”. The fact that any of these options was under discussion by 1912 is scary in itself.

When we read an old book like this, our first impulse is to dismiss it as hopelessly archaic. Look how much our ideas have changed in the last century, right? But we will never completely escape the ethical question of how much eugenic manipulation is acceptable. Today we have sequenced the human genome and genetic testing is standard during pregnancy. We already know enough to advise certain people not to breed. We will soon have the ability, if we don’t already, to engineer custom people the way we already do seeds and vegetables. It can even be argued that, now that technology removes most forces of natural selection, we need to take control of our own evolutionary destiny. It is inevitable that some government or group, somewhere will again experiment with a policy of Eugenics because while the underlying science has advanced, the basic temptation hasn’t changed in a century.

Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus

This month I continue my survey of the Great Books by reading the theatrical works of Aeschylus, earliest of the three great Greek tragedians.  Seven of Aeschylus’ plays have come down to us, although four of them are parts of now lost trilogies and the authorship of one of those, Prometheus Bound, is often questioned.  When I read these plays in order I realized what a powerful transformative influence Aeschylus must have been on the art form by seeing how much his own work changed over time.

Amphitheater at Delphi [user Luarvick, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Amphitheater at Delphi [user Luarvick, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

At the beginning of Aeschylus’ career, Greek tragedy was already at least a couple of generations old.  It grew out of an older tradition of bards called rhapsodies reciting religious poetry at festivals.  The first Greek playwright, Thespis had created an entirely new genre when he started writing pieces in which the Rhapsody played actual characters instead of just narrating.  He also backed him up with a chorus which could interact with the character, giving the audience cues about how they should react, and probably also enriching the piece with dance, chanting, and simple sound effects.

Greek playwrights didn’t use stage directions.  However, in his earlier plays like The Supplicant Maidens and The Persians there is the definitive sense that the actors spend much of their time standing in one place talking to the chorus, much as they must have done in Thespis’ plays.  Aeschylus is famous for being the first to have multiple actors in his plays, but in the early works he seems to still be working out the possibilities.  The dialogue between actors is limited, and there is no physical interaction between the characters.  The emphasis is on the language in their speeches.  In point of fact, Aeschylus is usually considered to be the best straight-up poet among the big three tragic playwrights.

By Prometheus Bound, one of the latest plays, he has overcome any inhibitions about interactions between the characters.  The first scene is a masterfully written three-way dialogue between the gods Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Kratos (Strength) while Hephaestus chains Prometheus and rivets him to the side of a mountain.   Not only is there plenty more expository dialogue as the play goes on, there are enough (implied) special effects to keep a modern CGI studio busy for weeks: the chorus arriving in winged cars and hovering before dismounting, a god riding a Hippogriff, a woman who has been turned half-way into a cow, and of course the entire mountain collapsing at the end of the play after it has been struck by a thunderbolt.  One can only imagine the look on the stage manager’s face when Aeschylus showed him the script.

Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, Henry Fuseli [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, Henry Fuseli [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

As I said earlier, many scholars debate whether Aeschylus actually wrote Prometheus Bound.  However, the actual writer was probably either his son or another of his close associates, who would have been trained and influenced by him; the work represents an evolutionary end point of his art, whether or not he penned it personally.  The fact that the play contains so much more interaction and visual interest than the earlier works is particularly noteworthy when we recall that the main character spends his time chained to a rock and can’t move.

Aeschylus was a writer who spent his career pushing to enlarge and improve his art.  We modern writers would do well to adopt him as a role model.  The reason Aeschylus is remembered after 25 centuries is he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in his genre and “break the rules” if it would improve the end product.  And he was successful enough at it that other writers began imitating him.

These days I think many authors, particularly new authors, are afraid to take creative risks.  Following established formats and creating a mystery novel or epic fantasy (or what have you) that is just like all the others on the market is a recipe for forgettable writing.  If you want to be like Aeschylus, you need to come up with a way to innovate and do something to make it your own, not just follow the established conventions of your chosen genre.

Is 2015 the Year of the Transsexual?

If you read any news at all you have probably noticed the recent deluge of stories about trans-people. The tabloids (and now the mainstream media) are obsessed with Bruce Jenner’s sex change.  MTF actress Laverne Cox, seems to be everywhere at once. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, and subsequent time-delayed tumbler messages, have outraged millions of readers and drawn attention to the role of gender issues in many teen suicides. The New York Times, always a good barometer of the left-of-middle zeitgeist, has been dropping stories at a rate of about one a week profiling various photogenic young people with non-binary sexual identities. Brad and Angelina, always on trend, have discovered that they have a transgendered child. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor turns in a stellar performance as a transitioning MTF on Amazon’s visually stunning and generally well written show Transparent. The producers of Glee, seemingly in an attempt to prop up their ratings, have announced that one of their regular characters is going to transition gender in the show’s final season.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent [Copyright Amazon Studios]  Fair Use Justification: This is a single low resolution still image from a television show, used for purposes of criticism or education.  There is no public domain substitute available and it does not affect Amazon Studios' future profit potential.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent [Copyright Amazon Studios]

Why is the media suddenly flooded with trans-related content? Are we witnessing the results some sort of transsexual conspiracy? No. Not really. Overall, any coverage that portrays transgender individuals as human beings and makes the population aware of gender issues is a good thing. It is far healthier than the way transsexuals have previously been portrayed on TV: as clowns, freaks, and sexual deviants. It helps undue some of the damage caused by pornography which objectifies transsexuals, portraying them as little more than mindless, pliable sex toys. But gender rights activists like Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, and many others have been trying to raise awareness of transsexual issues in the media for decades without ever achieving an effect of this magnitude. This trend is obviously coming from another quarter; there is no way it can be attributed solely to activism and identity politics.

I believe that we are about to witness another major shift of battle lines in a culture war which has been fought for over 200 years.

Gender rights first emerged as an issue in the context of women’s rights. However women’s rights was not initially seen as a separate issues. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the civil rights movement attempted to secure human, civil, and political rights for women, blacks, and everyone else who wasn’t an affluent white male. Most of the important nineteenth century abolitionists were also feminists; nearly all of the important feminists were abolitionists. This changed dramatically right after the civil war, when the 39th Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Suddenly, it looked as if black Americans had a real chance of securing the full rights of citizens. The leadership of the women’s rights movement put pressure on black leaders and Radical Republican congressmen to hold out for equal rights for women as well. Unfortunately, it was believed that bringing up the question of women’s rights would be politically unpalatable and kill the entire project.

Prior to that time Frederick Douglas, the most influential and charismatic black activist of the period had been a close ally of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the acknowledged leaders of the feminist movement. They broke when Douglas told them that he planned to support the civil war amendments because blacks needed civil rights more than women did. From that point on the black rights movement remained separated from the women’s rights movement. Slowly and painfully, the ruling powers decided to accept black men as full members of the society, but dug in and continued to fight against female equality.

American women finally received the right to vote fifty-five years later, the first big victory in their campaign. Now, after many more battles, women are also–mostly–considered equal citizens of the polity.

The gender wars were far from over, though. Homosexuals and transsexuals, long an oppressed minority in America, began to assert themselves in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. This movement too began as a coalition: homosexuals, cross-dressers, sex workers, and transsexuals. Again, after many battles, the forces of freedom pushed back the reactionary battle lines. By the 1990’s society had–grudgingly–agreed to accept the membership of homosexuals as long as they were “normal” in every other way. It had now become acceptable for a person to be gay or lesbian as long as they still fell within society’s binary conception of what a “man” or “woman” was. The establishment dug in again and “mainstream” homosexuals began doing everything they could to distance themselves from transsexuals, cross-dressers and queers who might spoil their hard-won acceptance.

The Stonewall Riots [Student Project]

Now the reactionary establishment is preparing to execute another strategic withdrawal. The “moral majority” is going to come to the decision, articulated by the mass media, that it is acceptable to be a transsexual as long an individual transitions all the way. The male-female binary must be maintained, and they will go on fighting to protect it. “Real” transsexuals, having anticipated this moment, have already begun cutting themselves loose from cross dressers, gender queers, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the correct stereotype.

But gender isn’t binary. It isn’t even a two-dimensional spectrum that runs from male to female, but a complex construct of many variables. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. The most likely result of any either-or system as a prerequisite of social acceptance is to pressure transgender people, especially young people, into seeking a full transition, dooming them to an expensive, painful, dangerous process that they might not need or want. I am completely in favor of people being able to live in their own gender, but it is ridiculous to only offer two extreme choices and tell them they have to choose.

Society will be forced to accept this too, in time. But rest assured, there will be some other group which is marginalized and made to fight for their rights. The culture war continues, exhausting our civilization and leaving us so focused on identity politics that we are unable to deal with the real issues of our time. Honestly, why are we obsessing over transgender people instead of global warming or overpopulation or a top-heavy system of wealth distribution that is a revolution waiting to happen? I wish we could just make peace in the culture war and move on to the real problems.


Further Reading:
Bornstein, K. (1994). Gender Outlaw: on Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge.

Epps, G. (2006). Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Wilchins, R. A. (1997). Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.

Leaves of Grass

Last week I finished up my study of the Hebrew Bible. I am currently working my way through the works of Aeschylus, so by next week I should be ready to blog about Greek Tragedy. right now, however, I would like to introduce the concept of a glove box book. A glove box book is one that you keep in the car in case you get stuck somewhere and need to kill time. To work, it needs to be something you can read over and over and which you can start reading at any spot and still enjoy, even if you haven’t looked at it for a few months.

My own glove box book is Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. Technically, I don’t have a glove box, since I gave up driving a few years ago. I have thought of it by that name, though, since an old family friend introduced me to the concept. His own glove box contains Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, another good choice. He tells me he has worn out at least two previous copies. My copies of Leaves of Grass live in the bag I carry when I walk into town and next to the chair where I smoke my briar pipe in the evenings.

Those of you who watched the television series Breaking Bad (and if you didn’t, you should) probably remember the rather pivotal role that Walter White’s copy of Leaves of Grass, kept on the back of his toilet, played in the plot of the show. Apparently Mr. White, and the writers of the show, have the same high opinion of the book that I do.

Walter White reads Leaves of Grass [Copyright by AMC/Sony Pictures]

Walter White reads Leaves of Grass [Copyright by AMC/Sony Pictures]

Walt Whitman was a genius, the human bridge between the transcendental and realistic movements. Leaves of Grass is a distillation of years of careful observation of every facet of American life into free verse. The book was Whitman’s life’s work; he kept returning to it and creating new editions to make it even better. Although most would classify the work as lyric poetry, Whitman thought of the work as an “American epic”, rooted in the classical tradition, yet distinctly tied to the country he loved,

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and AEneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus,
Repeat at Jerusalem, place the notice high on jaffa’s gate and on Mount Moriah,
The same on the walls of your German, French and Spanish castles, and Italian collections,
For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you.

And yet, it is clear that he chose to deliberately depart from the epic model in more than just structure. Classic epics glorify violence and elevate heroes, but such themes held little appeal for Whitman, who had seen far too much of them as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War,

Away with themes of war! away with war itself!
Hence from my shuddering sight to never more return that show of blacken’d, mutilated corpses!
That hell unpent and raid of blood, fit for wild tigers or for lop-tongued wolves, not reasoning men,
And in its stead speed industry’s campaigns, With thy undaunted armies, engineering,
Thy pennants labor, loosen’d to the breeze, Thy bugles sounding loud and clear.
Away with old romance!

Instead, he chose to focus on and glorify the common working people whom he saw building America,

…I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art, To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every woman too;

But while his themes were different Whitman resembles Homer in his gift for painting a series of beautiful, vivid word pictures which brings to life in 19th century America just as effectively as Homer’s did for ancient Greece.

Walt Whitman [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Walt Whitman [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Besides being a masterpiece of poetry, Leaves of Grass is ideal as a glove box book because it is a collection of smaller poems; I can easily pick a section which is the right length for whichever line I need to wait in, and there are enough of them that I can choose one I haven’t read in a while.

If you don’t have a glove box book of your own, I suggest you find one that works for you. Hopefully, you will chose one of the Great Books. I suspect, though, that most of the criteria for a good glove box book are the same as those for a Great Book, so the odds are good that you will.