Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beg your pardon -- you're begging the question

Reading The Beacon, the Fall newsletter by local writer Julie Ferguson, I came across an interesting article by Joyce Gram, in which she discusses the evolving usage of the expression to beg the question. The original meaning, to argue in a circular fashion, or avoid the question, says Gram, is falling out of use.

Almost exclusively, she points out, younger people use this expression in quite different ways now, as meaning either to invite the question or to raise an obvious one.

When my parents argued, as they often did, from incommensurate premises, Dad would reproach Mom, "You beg the question." She frustrated him with her tendency to assume she was right, rather than logically examining her beliefs, as he felt she should.

In contemporary usage, any expression containing the word beg is automatically unfashionable--I beg your pardon is another case in point. But this this begs the question of accuracy. Are the new usages more or less accurate than the old? Neither, I think. Language moves on, and though most try, no generation can rein it in.

Recently, I was delighted to hear the expression to beg the question used in the original way by none other than Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, in The Careful Use of Compliments (2007). I was listening to it in the car, as an audio book beautifully narrated by Davina Porter.

There’s a certain level of linguistic—what is it? muscle, perhaps—that develops with long years of faithful and attentive reading and writing. McCall Smith has that in spades, and it enables him to bring forward, not only the fading lore of W.H. Auden, Isabel Dalhousie's favourite poet, but many delectable linguistic constructions of earlier generations. To beg the question was definitely used in what Isabel calls "old Edinburgh."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ketchikan mother and the scream

Kids sometimes scream. These blood-curdling yells occur mostly in the context of play; after all, most kids have lively imaginations. To other ears, though, these careless screams can suggest something is seriously amiss.

One summer at the lake, I witnessed a scene that stopped me from ever again emitting another careless scream. (At least, until I was 19, and foolishly agreed to go along with university friends and ride the historic wooden roller coaster at the PNE.)

My brother and I played with a kid whose name we did not know, because we hadn't bothered to introduce ourselves. We thought of him as Ketchikan, because he was from that town in Alaska.

Like many other summer tourists, Ketchikan and his mother had come down to Prince Rupert on the Alaska Ferry in a camper, and then driven down to Lakelse Lake, where we were also staying.

We were playing some boisterous game, and my brother was chasing Ketchikan, who let out a blood-curdling scream.

His mother erupted from the camper and we all three froze as she ran toward us, hair flying.

"What's the matter?" Her face was filled with a wild concern.

"Nothing," said Ketchikan, "we're just playing." Then he made the mistake of laughing.

I've never seen anyone's expression change so fast. In an instant, the pallor of terror was replaced by the wildness of rage.

"Listen to me, Kenny," she said, biting off each word. (It seemed Kenny was his real name.) "Screaming is not funny. When you scream, I come running. If you have no good reason to be screaming, I'll be glad to give you one." Then she looked at my brother and me coldly, turned, and stomped away.

That was when I realized the effect screaming had on others, parents especially. And except for that one time on the roller coaster--and I really couldn't stop myself then--I never screamed again.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Snake-sitting summer

I've had some strange summer jobs. Probably the weirdest one of all was snake-sitting. It was a duty of obligation, not a paid position.

The pet owner snake was my brother's friend, and he'd caught the snake slithering through the grass down by the pony corral. Gavin opened the box, and I looked inside. The green garter snake was less than a foot long. I eyed it warily.

"What does it eat?" I asked.

"Hamburger," said Gavin, and then, when he saw my puzzled look, added "raw hamburger."

"You have to open it's mouth, like this, said Gavin gravely, and push in some hamburger, like this." He demonstrated and I shuddered.

"It's not nice to force feed it," I said. "What if it's not hungry?"

"Snakes have no teeth," explained Gavin kindly. His tone suggested he was speaking to a simpleton. "They have to swallow things whole."

Just like I have to swallow your stupid explanation whole, though it is probably wrong, I said to myself. I was about fourteen, a couple of years older than Gavin, and thought I knew a lot more than this kid. But I was working for his mother, as a groom in her riding stable. I loved this job, and I wanted to keep it. I thought I'd better be nice.

For the next two weeks I fed the snake raw hamburger, morning and night. When Gavin returned from Manitoba it was alive and well. But summer was drawing to a close, and he was getting bored with the snake. As undoubtedly the snake was getting bored with living in a shoebox and being force-fed raw hamburger.

"I think I'll set it free," Gavin said one morning. We both watched as he tipped the cardboard box down toward the grass. The snake slithered from the box and was gone in a flash of green. I was relieved to know that I'd fulfilled my duty and glad the snake had endured its captivity and was free again.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dusk in the blackberry patch

In the space between busy highways, dikes and fences separate adjacent farmlands from the waterfowl refuge of the Serpentine Fen. The distant roar of traffic is still audible here in the wetlands, but the feeling is quiet and reflective.

Herons, ducks and geese fly in low formations, the sound of their wings audible before they splash down. The wooden footbridge gives a good view of the largest duck pond. The trail beside it is screened by tall grasses and cattails.

In the late summer dusk I pick some of the blackberries that flourish on their thorny briars, between the wildflowers and silken grasses that flank the trails.

Humans are not the only ones to eat from this profusion of fruit. At dusk, rabbits scamper beneath the bushes seeking their share, and the coyote scat by the trail is full of seeds.

An evening in the wild blackberry patch returns me to a quieter, more rural past, and the fragrant, juicy, sun-ripened fruit feeds body and soul.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Poison, or just fowsty?

One of my Mom's Newfie speech habits was the cavalier way in which she used the terrifying word poison. "Don't eat that old stuff," she might say, "it'll poison you."

In the early stages of my linguistic development I had no concept of metaphor; I equated poison with instant death.

If I ate even a crumb of something before being advised against it as "poison" by my mother, I was terrified that I might drop dead at any moment. After surviving a number of expected "poisonings," it occurred to me that I may have misunderstood the word.

One day I asked for clarification. "Would this moldy bread kill me if I ate it?"

To my astonishment, my mother scoffed at the idea. "No, indeed, my dear," she said. "But it's no good." She wrinkled her nose and pointed to the blue patch. "See? It's fowsty."

Now I haven't heard that word since Mom passed away, and it may not be in the dictionary, but according to a facebook discussion, it's still around. The alternative spelling is fousty.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Can a door have scruples?

"Can you hear that noise?" I asked my daughter.

"Yes," she replied. "I've been hearing it all day. It sounds like something mooing."

"Mooing? Nothing that big, I hope. A bird, maybe?" I suggested.

"Yes, I see what you mean. Possibly a goose," she said.

I glanced at the open screen door and brightened.

"It's the screen door...squeaking." I stopped myself from using the word scruple; I'd learned long ago in elementary school that scruple is not a noise caused by lack of lubrication.

"There's that old door scrupling again," Mom would say. "I must get Dad to put some oil on it." But my teacher would have none of it. A scruple was not a noise, she explained; it meant hesitating to do something on ethical grounds.

I wanted to argue for my mother's Newfoundland usage, but the dictionary failed to back me up and I had to accept the embarrassment of having defended an idea that was wrong. At the same time, deep down, I believed in my mother. When I went home and asked her what a scruple was, she told me it was a squeaking noise made by wood or hinges.

It was a lovely word. Only I'd learned a regional usage which made no sense in BC. I don't think of it often, but Mom's use of the word has stayed with me. It sounds like it should be right.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When cell-free becomes fashionable again

Fashions have a way of coming full-circle. A craze passes and is replaced by its near-opposite. Will this happen with cell phones?

These rapidly proliferating devices represent a major technological advance, no question. Without a doubt, they provide convenience.

But let's face it, aside from those emergency calls, the way they're used is determined mainly by the dictates of fashion. And for those out of their teens, flashin' the phone is no longer in fashion.

It's already been written up in the business section of the paper. Allowing a ring tone to be heard or answering a cell call at a business lunch is very uncool. "Do turn off your mobile phone," states Darah Hansen in a recent article on dos and don'ts for business lunches in The Vancouver Sun.

The evolution in cell phone manners reminds me of the situation with televisions, when they first came out and everyone was glued to them. Well, not quite everyone. The more forward-looking, the less enslaved by fashion made up a joke that went like this:

"Do you have a television?"

"Of course. But we keep it out of sight, in a closed room."

The same could soon be said of cell phones. Have them, by all means. But except when needed, they should be kept in the purse or pocket, decently out of sight and mind.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Because of the relentless persistence of plants

Photos by Carol Tulpar

In the tiny space around the large metal claw feet of lampposts, with concrete all around, flowers and grasses grow and bloom.

In the heat of summer in the midst of a large paved parking lot, a volunteer cosmos blooms in the narrow crack between the slabs of cement.

 



In White Rock this past spring, a pumpkin seed, presumably one that escaped from last October's Halloween pumpkin carving festivities, grew into a small pumpkin vine in the crack between the sidewalk slab and edging, a place only a couple of centimetres wide.

Because of the persistence of grass, of fruiting plants, of trees, of flora that grows in fresh and salt water, life on earth goes on. Every day, as the poet Basho reminds us, "the grass grows by itself." So do the other plants.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Doris Lessing's mother unkowingly sacrificed her career for art

Left: Cover image from Amazon of Lessing's novel about her parents

The mother of Nobel laureate Doris Lessing was a nurse before and during World War I. She loved her work, and was offered a job as a hospital matron at the age of thirty-two, a remarkable achievement for a woman of her times.

However, Emily Tayler did not take up the post Matron of St. George's Hospital in London. Instead, she married Alfred, who had been wounded in the war and later fitted with a wooden leg. Embittered by the political decisions that had killed a generation of young men and cost him a limb, Alfred refused to stay on in England after the war.

The couple went first to Iran (Persia), where Doris was born in 1919, and later to Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), where her father established a farm. As Doris grew up, she began to observe the world around her. It was the social injustice she witnessed under the racist regime that governed the then British colony that first compelled her to write.

In Zimbabwe, Doris became a communist and married political activist Gottfried Lessing. Though they later divorced, she kept his name. Doris Lessing went on to become a brilliant and prolific writer. In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her enormous and varied body of work. During her long writing life, she has won every possible literary prize. She also declined the title of Dame of the British Empire because she had written so much against imperialism. She has been called a feminist writer, but calls the term too simple.

If Emily Tayler had refused to give up her career, declined to emigrate with her husband as he moved from England to Persia to Rhodesia, Doris would not have been born. The world would have been deprived of one of the greatest visionary writers of the twentieth century.

If Lessing's writing are anything to go by, she and her mother never got on terribly well. All the more reason why Emily deserves our thanks for her indirect and unintentional contribution to art: giving birth to and raising her challenging daughter, Doris.

Writers, Lessing has said, are mirrors who reflect society to itself. From the lyrical tragedy of The Grass is Singing (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1950) to Alfred and Emily (HarperCollins, 2008) she has faithfully held up that mirror.

Lessing says of her parents in the foreword of Alfred and Emily that WWI "did them both in." The novella is an attempt to "give them lives as might have been if there had been no World War One." Aged 89 when this novella about her parents was published, she finds herself still trying to get free of the "monstrous legacy" of that same war.

Thank you, Emily, and Alfred, for giving the world your daughter. And thank you, Doris Lessing, for your unblinking record of so much of the passing history that you lived through during the century that horrified, nurtured, and ultimately inhabited you.

Thinking about thinking -- portrayed by Ian McEwan

Book cover image from Ian McEwan website

Meta-thinking? Is that what it's called when you observe your own thoughts and emotions and try to influence your mental processes--or at least become aware of their habitual nature?

In his novel Saturday, Ian McEwan brilliantly portrays this inner mental and emotional terrain. Henry Perowne, a brain surgeon, happens to wake in the night and go to the window, just in time to see a burning plane flying across the London sky, apparently heading for Heathrow. The year, circa 2004, makes the outcome predictable: Henry's mind goes into overdrive and he begins to imagine the worst.

Through this character, McEwan shows how the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the media and government responses to them have changed moods, attitudes and expectations.

Unlike many who remain unaware of this insidious process, Henry Perowne sees himself "becoming a dupe--the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder...the docile citizen...only too happy to let the story and every little shift of the news process colour his emotional state."

We are becoming, Henry sees, "a community of anxiety," dancing to the "sweet repetitive tunes of pessimism." He sees the addiction to news as "an orthodoxy of attention, a mild subjugation in itself."

In another part of the novel, Henry foresees that there will be more attacks; the city is impossible to protect. Henry's thoughts are tragically prescient. The summer after the book appeared came the attacks on London Transit, and recently, of course the London riots.

Saturday was published in 2005 in London by Jonathan Cape, and as an audio book by HarperCollins the same year. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

McEwan's most recent book, Solar (Jonathan Cape 2010), tackles the issue of climate change. He talked about and read from that book in Vancouver last April; it went on to win the Bollinger Everyman Woodhouse Prize for Comic Fiction.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

New City Centre Library in Surrey

Photo: City Centre Library before final completion, by Travelling Times.

Written up in arch daily, Surrey's new City Centre Library is scheduled to open on September 24. Located next to SFU Surrey, it was designed by Bing Thom Architects.

Thom believes that contemporary libraries must be sanctuaries and people's universities, as well as meeting places. (Sun, Aug 17). This flagship of the Surrey fleet certainly looks the part.

Input on the design involved the use of Twitter and Facebook, and much of that came from young people, who wanted the library to be a fun place. The collection of 100,000 items for loan will include 20 e-readers, along with the books, CDs and DVDs, says deputy chief librarian Melanie Houlden.

Wouldn't it be intriguing to borrow a knowledgeable person instead of a book sometimes? That's a new service the library will provide. As the National Post reports, to learn more about a specific religion, a disability, or an experience such as immigration, patrons will be able to check out one of the volunteers the library has already lined up. Interviewing can take place in the library cafe.

A central feature of the building is the oculus, a central oval skylight that resembles a sundial. The presence of a sundial in the ultra-modern City Centre Library underlines how contemporary libraries are repositories of knowledge from our common human past.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Contemporary suburban library

Photo: Yasemin Tulpar

Newton Library in our neighbourhood is a spacious facility flanked by lush semi-tropical plants and a free parking lot that always has a space somewhere.

As well as a wealth of books, newspapers and magazines, this bright and beautifully designed building contains up-to-date computer equipment and lends out increasing numbers of CDs and DVDs. Recently, it has begun to lend e-books as well.

Other services include computer classes and story times for kids. Teen Central helps get young people involved with book clubs, contests, and volunteering, as well as providing homework help.

Career and job search resources come in all formats. Those interested in history and genealogy can research Canadian historical materials and those who want to brush up test skills can practice for driving tests, typing tests, Canadian citizenship tests and more.

The Surrey Public Library system has a variety of materials in more than 15 languages. Examples are French, Spanish, Punjabi, Arabic and Vietnamese. Branches choose their foreign language holdings based on the ethnic makeup of the neighbourhood using the facilities.

Of course, there is inter-library loan service available, and it is easy to request a book from a home computer and pick it up at the branch of choice for up to a week after the email announcing its arrival. The library also sends email reminders a few days before books are due. Patrons can renew on line and avoid accruing fines.

We've come a long way from ancient libraries such as those in Ugarit, Ephesus and Rome, but the principle remains the same: collecting and organizing knowledge in a central place where it can be freely shared.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wading in the Similkameen swimming hole

Photo: Yasemin Tulpar


When our daughter was a child, we drove the Hope Princeton in summer and found a great swimming hole in the Similkameen River at Bromley Rock. Since the heat of that August day enticed us to take that first icy plunge, the place has remained a landmark for all of us.

Until yesterday, I hadn't seen Bromley Rock since last August. That day it was late afternoon and rainy, and I was alone. Definitely not a good time for a refreshing swim to wash off the dust of the road.

Yesterday Yasemin and I stopped there again, in the heat of the afternoon. We'd promised her Dad, who wasn't with us, that we'd enjoy the Similkameen waters.

The prospect of full immersion was too much, but I was determined to get my feet wet. Obligingly, my daughter captured my wading venture on film. She also did all the driving on our day trip to Osoyoos.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer fruit from the Okanagan-Similkameen

Photo: Old tractor rusts beneath ripening apples at Parsons Farm Market in Keremeos

For those who love summer fruit, it's the season to drive up-country and visit the fruit stands. As well as Keremeos, but we like to include Oliver and Osoyoos.

The return journey in the late afternoon means driving the steep and winding Hope-Princeton to arrive at Manning Park in early evening. In good weather, the spectacular mountain scenery is lit by the westering sun and good weather or not, the car is filled with the fragrance of fresh fruit.

Yesterday I made the trip with my adult daughter. We had plenty of time to indulge in a favourite travel pastime: constructing made-up stories to explain something we see on our travels. We also discussed covering topics from the potentials of Cascadia to memories of returning along this route from various Girl Guide camps.

Over the years our family has developed some routines, and there's one place we stop to swim. We've made the drive as a family, and I've done it alone but this was the first time with just the two of us. Yesterday's journey entailed new paths as well as re-discoveries.

It was pre-dusk when we reached Hope, filled up on cheap gas and entered Rolly's Restaurant, where we had often stopped before. And because there were paving crews on Highway 1, we changed the last leg of the journey by crossing the Fraser north of Hope and following the quiet and beautiful Highway 7, with the soft summer darkness slowly settling around.

It was nearly ten by the time we flew across the Golden Ears Bridge. When we arrived home soon after, her Dad was at work so we greeted the cat and started unloading fruit.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The voice of Frankie Armstrong at Jericho Sailing Club

Photo: Harbourtownrecords.com

Michael and Lynn own the shop Celtic Traditions, where they sell traditional Irish and Scottish woolen sweaters. Michael fiddles and Lynn sings and they love traditional music of the British Isles and elsewhere.

In the winter months, on Tuesday evenings, their shop becomes a coffee house, with a steady stream of folk groups and artists dropping by to sing and play. In the summer, a room in the Jericho Sailing Centre at 1300 Discovery Street is where the folk music action is.

Last night it was packed. Jam sessions featured voice, fiddles, mandolin and more. The atmosphere evoked the sixties, with a lot of foot-tapping and singing along with the chorus. Many in the audience had enough miles on them to remember those hootenanny times.

The featured singer was Frankie Armstrong. A lady who sang her way through the sixties and kept right on singing, she used her harmonica to select a key, then wowed the audience with her soaring voice.

She sang traditional ballads about the labour and heartbreak of farming and about the war between the sexes. She sang about a drunken poet who falls into grief over the loss of a monkey, and writes the best poem of his life. She sang a Norwegian cow calling song, and one about women in a north London bottling factory trying to organize an all-woman union in 1911.

She closed down her set with an interactive song called Voices, that reflected on what the human voice can achieve, singly or in chorus. This song originated when the women of Britain occupied Greenham Common to keep out the cruise missiles. Today, she said, that place is a nature reserve, helped to that status by those voices that kept on singing there long ago.

The audience refused to let her go without an encore, and for this she sang a song of encouragement. The room was jammed to the rafters and hot as Hades; the people beside us had wisely brought fans to keep a bit cooler. But the performers and audience were in fine voice, and it was a great musical night.

BY THE WAY: For those enjoying the ancient library posts, we're moving forward in time soon: some libraries of our times.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Libraries of Ugarit

Photo: Tablet listing the gods of Ugarit, New World Encyclopedia

In 1928 in Syria, a peasant ploughing a field accidentally uncovered the Necropolis of ancient Ugarit.

The cosmopolitan coastal city of Ugarit dates back to at least 6000 BCE. French archeological excavations began in 1929.

Among the finds were several bronze age libraries, consisting of clay tablets inscribed with various ancient languages. Ugaritic literature is varied and impressive.

One important piece recovered sheds light on the Canaanite worship of the god Baal (possibly related to the Turkish word for bull.) Ugaritic is a unique kind of cuneiform which was deciphered in 1930. Other tablets are in Hurrian, a language that pre-dates the Hittites.

Like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ugaritic literature refers to a great flood, which likely happened, according to Dr. Haluk Berkmen, in Central Asia. Berkmen also provides this translation of a poetic fragment:

The heart of Anat overwhelmed her,
as the love of an antelope for her fawn,

as the love of a ewe for her lamb
so was the heart of Anat for Boglu (Baal).

Monday, August 15, 2011

How Irish monks saved Roman writings

Photo: copy of an illuminated manuscript page by artsmia.org

Thomas Cahill, a scholar and historian of Western civilization, credits Irish monks, copying books in their scriptoria in obscure monasteries, for saving huge numbers of Roman writings from being obliterated during the Dark Ages.

In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York, Anchor, 1995), Cahill explains how as the Roman Empire fell, "the Irish took up the great labour of copying all of Western literature." Monastic scribes also "served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe."

The Irish monks, says Cahill, "re-founded European civilization throughout the continent." Without them, the current literate Western civilization would never have come into being.

According to the Irish Times archive, the years between 500 and 1000 were golden ones for scholarly itinerant Irish monks, who also developed their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and other sciences.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Desert Libraries of Timbuktu

Photo: Library of Congress exhibition

From European and North American perspectives, the very name of Timbuktu has long been associated with remoteness. This small settlement on the edge of the Sahara, however, is the home of several rich libraries that until recently were unknown to the outside world.

In 2004, UNESCO renewed its commitment to the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project with study tours.

In September 2009, Time magazine reported on a library begun in the 12th century by an ancestor of the man who still preserves it today, saying there hundreds like it in Timbuktu. The article quotes another man who reports that his ancestors carried their library from Toledo, Spain, fleeing religious persecution in 1467.

The books are made of paper, with hand-tooled leather covers, and date back to the 14th to 16th centuries. They cover a vast array of subject materials including astronomy, poetry, philosophy, mathematics and medicine.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Library at Nalanda university contained many major Buddhist texts

Photo: Nalanda, the Ancient Seat of Learning

Southeast of Patna, in the state of Bihar, India, Nalanda University was a central place of learning between the 5th and 12th centuries of the Common Era.

In this place, founded by Kumaragupta I, there lived and studied thousands of teachers and students from all over the Buddhist world, as well as Greece and Persia. The Buddha is reputed to have visited and taught here, and it is considered a source of various streams of Buddhism.

The libraries, housed in three tall buildings, were renowned and large, and were said to have contained thousands of books; unfortunately, the texts were destroyed by fire when the monastery complex was sacked by invading Muslim forces under Bakhtiyar Khilji at the end of the 12th century CE.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Royal Library of Ashurbanipal

Picture: tablet containing the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, by COJS.org.

The Royal Library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, located in Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, dates back to the 7th century. In 1849, British archeologists found the first of about 20,000 clay tablets and carried them back to the British Museum; however, they were not deciphered for about 50 years.

When the cuneiform writing was translated, it was discovered that along with the ancient literary work The Epic of Gilgamesh, there were numerous other materials organized systematically under history, government, poetry, science and other topics.

In recent years, experts at the British Museum have been working with international colleagues to document this oldest surviving royal library in the world.

Sadly, the Baghdad Musuem was looted during the attacks on Iraq in 2003. After six years of closure it reopened in 2009.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bibliotheca Ulpia of Roman Emperor Trajan

The Ulpian Libraries were part of the great imperial Forum of Trajan, built into the Quirinal Hill. This forum also included the Basilica Ulpia.

Photo: Computer reconstruction by John Burge et al, 
University of Chicago

Founded in 114, the two libraries faced one another across a courtyard. Each contained about 20,000 scrolls. The West library was devoted to works in Greek, and the East one to Latin writings.

Between them stood, and still stands, the Column of Trajan. The Bibliotheca Ulpia was perhaps the most famous of the Roman libraries. It is thought to have survived until at least the mid-fifth century CE.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Villa of the Papyrii, Herculaneum, Italy

Photo: Villa of the Papyri, from Hercolaneum, a Personal View

When Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, along with the human casualties, an impressive library was destroyed.

In the mid-1700s the remains of the villa containing the scrolls were discovered by well-diggers. This sumptuous home is thought to have belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Writings of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus were among the 1800 damaged papyrus scrolls that were found in the villa and placed in a Naples museum.

Advanced methods of image restoration have made it possible to decipher some of the damaged scrolls. An international effort called the Philodemus Project was launched to decipher and publish the contents of these papyrii. Thus, recently published work by Philodemus covering moral psychology and therapeutics is now available.

In The Ethics of Philodemus (Voula Tsouna, UC Santa Barbara, 2007) the philosopher discusses vice and virtue, and conceives of philosophy as medicine and the philosopher as doctor who treats the soul, thus providing further insight into the therapeutics of the Hellenic age.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Great Library of Pergamum


Photo: Ancient Libraries of the Mediterranean

About 2 hours' drive northeast of the coastal Turkish city of Izmir lie the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamum (Turkish name Bergama).

Here stood a great library of Hellenic and Roman times. Containing 200,000 scrolls, it rivaled the Library of Alexandria. When Egypt banned the export of papyrus, a substitute material was made from animal skins. It was called parchment, after the name of the city.

It was here that Galen, an early experimental physiologist, worked on his medical books. He was later called to Rome to attend the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a noted writer and philosopher.

Pergamum also boasted the steepest theatre in the ancient world. As is the case with so many ancient sites, huge numbers of artifacts have been taken away. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin devoted to displaying the treasures of this ancient city.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The ancient library of Alexandria made new again

Photo by Bibliotheca Alexandrina: the newest version of the library

During the reign of Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BCE, the Royal Library of Alexandria was set up by Demetrius Phelarius in the Egyptian city. Housing hundreds of thousands of scrolls, this stupendously large library was attached to the Alexandriana Museum, which was itself one of the wonders of the ancient world.

It is said that to help build the new collection quickly, travellers to the city, which was named after Alexander the Great, were required to surrender their scrolls to scribes for copying. The originals then went to the library and copies were returned to the visitors.

The library was divided into halls according to subject area. It also contained lecture rooms, as well as smaller rooms for the use of individual researchers. It was described in a BBC report as "an ancient seat of learning" which contained works by Plato, Socrates, and Ptolemy. At this library "Erastothenes measured the diameter of the earth and Euclid discovered the rules of Geometry." According to an Egyptian expert on antiquities, the university, which could house 5000 students in its great lecture halls, was possibly the oldest in the world.

The destruction of the library by fire is reported by various writers in somewhat contradictory accounts. In 49 CE, Seneca refers to the burning of thousands of its scrolls. Plutarch, writing in 117 CE, says the stone library was destroyed by fire. According to a BBC report, the library was destroyed "possibly by Julius Caesar, in his campaign of conquest."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in October 2002. The idea had been conceived by UNESCO in the 1980s, and many nations contributed to the plan to re-create the new library with the same goals as the ancient one: research, knowledge and open exchange of ideas. (National Geographic News)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Library of Celsus

Photo: the library is the two-storey facade with columns, near the centre of the picture. (Efes, Turkey)

The Library of Celsus was one of the great libraries of the ancient world, and Ephesus was one of its great multicultural cities.

Built in 117 CE, this library was a tomb and monument to Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, who lies below it. The statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom watches over it.

The books of the day were published in the form of scrolls, and housed in double-walled niche cupboards. After the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, this was the third largest of its time, with a capacity for about 12,000 scrolls.

According to Ephesus, four statues adorning the niches at the front of the building symbolized the virtues of Celsus: wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and valour. Since 1910, the originals have been at a museum in Vienna; in Efes, replicas have been put in their places.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Connecting to Fox Harbour Library, Newfoundland

Photo: Fox Harbour from Newfoundland art

Catherine Murray, a librarian at Fox Harbour, Newfoundland, agreed last month to an interesting experiment.

A direct island-to-island communication from one coast to the other, the exercise was organized as part of the Write on Bowen Festival. Writers Ellee Kraljii Gardiner and Michael Turner provided the writing constraints -- and the envelopes, addressed to Catherine at Fox Harbour Libary.

We only had a few minutes, and each writer in the room came up with a very different response to the prompts, as we learned when a few people read their work afterwards.

It was an interesting use of writing prompts and libraries. Next time I go to Newfoundland, I hope to visit the small library at Fox Harbour. Perhaps I'll meet Catherine Murray herself.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Langley Library on Whidbey Island Washington

Photo: Langley Library, Whidbey Island, 2010 by Carol Tulpar

Visiting Langley last fall, I stayed across the road at the Saratoga Inn, and was attracted by this lovely small-town library from the past, with its ocean view. Closed only on Sundays, it's open between 7 and 9 hours on all other days.

The original building dates back to 1923. The most recent addition was completed in 1994, and is wheelchair accessible.

In 2012, the Langley library will be annexed with Sno-Isle libraries, centered in Marysville.

Elsewhere on Whidbey, Coupeville has a library, and Freeland and Oak Harbour Libraries are open even on Sundays during the school year.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Island Libary Salt Spring

Photo: Salt Spring Island Public Library



Salt Spring Island is getting a new library.

The picture above shows the old one, already torn down. Anyone who has never seen a library demolished can watch the process blow by blow in a video published in the Gulf Islands Driftwood.

According to historian Grace Byrne, the Mary Hawkins Memorial Library building was named in honour of the leader of the volunteers who created it. Byrne also states that it was once the only library in BC with a bathtub.

Presumably, there have been none since July 28, when the Salt Spring Island library was torn down. However, though it no longer had a bathtub, this library now has three Kobo e-readers available for loan. This library is definitely changing with the times.

The collection is available in temporary quarters during construction, for which ground has already been broken. The new building will be a work of art, as well as a leading design in sustainability. It will open its doors to the public before the end of next year.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Small town libraries: Bowen Island and Viking

Even small towns and islands like Bowen have public libraries.

Bowen Island Public Libary has just reduced its hours. in addition to regular Monday closures, the library is now closed on Sunday, just for the summer, the website says; Thursday 1:00 closure is a pilot project.

Part of the Alberta town's the Carena Complex, the Viking Community Library closes Mondays and Fridays at 4, doesn't open till 3 on Tuesdays, and is closed weekends.

As important cultural institutions, digital age libraries have to make crucial decisions about allocating resources. On the one hand, finding and reserving books online could hardly be easier. Meanwhile, paper books are gradually declining. Will live library visits decline too?

Writer-broadcaster (and trained librarian) Bill Richardson says we are fortunate that free public libraries were invented long ago. He questions whether today's societies would have invented them if they hadn't already existed. But how wonderful to have all that knowledge freely available to all.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Trees noticed only by their absence

Whenever a tree is cut in Bear Creek Park, the feels different once the gap it makes is exposed. Yet trails in public parks must be maintained, sometimes by felling trees. This old cottonwood no longer leans across the trail. It's been cut into chunks ready to be hauled away.

A devastating example of tree loss happened after a big windstorm in Stanley Park a few winters ago. I still grieve the dark tunnels of greenery that hugged the narrow road round the park for most of my lifetime, and long before. Five years later the missing trees remain conspicuous by their absence.

Still, I guess it's fortunate that this was the only tree cut in Bear Creek Park yesterday. A good thing it was taken down safely, before it fell, damaged other trees and endangered people on the trails. No doubt some unhappy squirrels have had to move house, though.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Summer evening walk

Crossed by power lines, the nature trail in Bear Creek Park is lit with late light.

Especially in summer, earth exhales a sweet freshness as darkness approaches. Just as humans exhale carbon dioxide, plants give out oxygen; evenings they exude the most.

As dusk nears, the park fills with delights. Cottontail bunnies dart along the lawns, in and out of the hedgerows of brambles. Birds call softly to one another, and occasionally an owl sits in a cottonwood waiting for nightfall.

The wild blackberries are still hard and green, but on the park lawn, transparent apples are already lying on the grass, their crisp green flesh alluring. Along with a few from the lower branches of the tree, a selective harvest of the undamaged windfalls can be made into the most wonderful applesauce. The smell of it cooking arouses the summer appetite for fruit.