On the Importance of Levity

November 29, 2009
Stay! Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak. —Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1 **

The blogosphere is strewn with literary wannabes. There are about 25 book blogs worthy of note. Bookphilia is certainly one of them. Mixing playfulness and analysis with a voracious reading appetite, Colleen Shea cranks out quality material on an almost daily basis. But perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay her is that she teaches boys the hornbook, and by “boys,” I specifically mean me, a wannabe literary blogger who devoutly wishes to be counted as 25 + 1. Don’t get the hornbook reference? No worries—read Love’s Labour’s Lost and you shall see. Because no matter what Colleen says, you definitely have a moral and an aesthetic obligation to do so.

Colleen Shea

Who are you?

A former academic, a current bookstore owner, and, I would like to think, a not entirely illiterate book blogger.

Why should people read Shakespeare? Explain.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class well outside my comfort zone called Chinese and Japanese religions. On the final exam, the essay question was, “Describe the nature of the Tao.” Just thinking about this now, 15 years later, still makes me sweat a little, for the first thing we’re told in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” which is followed by several more variations on this theme of “You can’t talk about the Tao without getting it wrong, so don’t even try.” You won’t be surprised to hear that I choked on that particular essay question.

I feel similarly stuck confronted by this question about why people should read Shakespeare. I have two answers.

My first response is a conditional one. I would say, if you want to know anything about the history of the English theatre, Renaissance English literature, the development of the sonnet, check out Shakespeare – in the context of other texts related to any of these areas of interest.

But my second, and more honest response, the only one I can stand by entirely and without qualification of any sort, is this — people should read Shakespeare because they want to, period. I don’t believe reading anyone’s work should be saddled with any kind of either moral or aesthetic imperative.

What’s your favorite play? Why?

The Winter’s Tale. My love of Renaissance drama really began with this one because it so thoroughly intrigued and confused me. I could go on forever about this play, so I’ll limit my comments to one issue:

I first read this play in an undergraduate course devoted to the man; my professor, damn him to hell, had only one thing to say about Leontes’ irrational jealousy: that we couldn’t say anything about it except that jealousy is irrational. I was 19-years old and didn’t have the critical skills to argue with this lazy assessment, but I knew it was inadequate; indeed, my frustration with this prof may be why I did a PhD!

I’ve since come to believe that Leontes’ jealousy springs from his linguistic deficiencies. While every other character engages in a complex social dance based on the polite and flirtatious rhetoric of the court, Leontes flounders, is awkward, can’t tell when people are sincere and when they’re not. Because he can’t participate in or comprehend the vocabulary of the court – and as the king, he should be the ultimate authority – he becomes exceedingly insecure. Polixenes’ and Hermione’s own talents in this area exclude Leontes from the discourse of power and order he’s supposed to represent. And because he doesn’t understand and can’t use such language, he can only figure and express his jealousy in the basest, almost non-verbal ways – with a lot of suspicious sputtering about perceived sexual impropriety between his wife and his friend.

But really, I love The Winter’s Tale because it’s a good read and works exceptionally well on stage.

Did Shakespeare invent the human as Harold Bloom argues?

I don’t believe so; I would say that had Shakespeare not existed, we would have had to invent him (or someone like him) in order to explain our own humanity to us. Why we need an external (and safely infallible because so long gone) figure to function this way for us is a question I can’t answer.

However, that English-speaking culture in large part defines what is best about itself in relation to a very talented artist is something which is really rather positive, I think. It’s especially positive in the face of western culture’s increasing devotion to all things purely practicable and applicable; to lionize an artist, one who dealt entirely in the lovely, the tragic, the hilarious, and the wonderful, is a sign that we’re not completely lost yet. And at least it was Shakespeare and not, say, Nietzsche, we chose to fill this need – what a terrible world we would now be floundering in if we were all spaking like Zarathrustra!

If you could spend a day with a Shakespearean character, who would it be? And what would you do?

Bottom, of course. His roaring would do me good to hear.

Apart from listening to him roar and perhaps also sometimes speak to me in a monstrous little voice, we would together organize a flash mob. This flash mob would involve 200 people storming the next Liberal (sort of like the Democrats in the US) leadership convention and singing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” and doing the moonwalk and grabbing our crotches. Now that’s behavior that both politicians and modern-day Shakespearean actors can understand.

If N. America were a major player in a drama (!), what is N. America’s tragic flaw?

This tragic flaw business – bah! So, the idea of the tragic flaw comes from classical Greek tragedy, specifically from the word hamartia, which more accurately translates as “tragic error” than as “tragic flaw.”

The implications for an error are quite different from those of a flaw – if we’re flawed, we really have no control over our bad behavior – think of the fable of the scorpion and the frog. But if we’re not essentially flawed, we just make terrible choices with tragic and irreversible consequences – that’s much, much worse, for such devastating actions could potentially have been prevented, had we listened to our family, our friends, or our fool who all warned us against what we were about to do.

Now, about North America. Given its propensity for voting not for the best but instead for the second or third best in any given situation (current US president excluded), its most recent tragic error is crowning Jeanine as America’s Favorite Dancer. Brandon and Kayla were robbed. I really can’t answer this question seriously. It’s too capital E-Earnest. I’m sorry.

What are Shakespeare’s three most important contributions to literary art?

I can’t answer this question very seriously either because I don’t believe in the tautological notion that everything Shakespeare wrote is genius because Shakespeare wrote it. For example, although I enjoy Titus Andronicus very much, it’s so bad it may actually degrade literary art as a whole.

What I think are his most beautiful pieces or passages are likely very different than other people’s. I will answer this then, both seriously and in silliness:


1. That scene in King Lear when Lear is holding Cordelia’s body:

Lear. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!—.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
O, O, O, O.

Edgar. He faints. My lord, my lord!

Lear. Break, heart, I prithee break.

Edgar. Look up, my lord.

Kent. Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. [Lear dies]

2. Measure for Measure. All of it. I can’t say why or we’ll be here all day.

3. Othello’s final speech to Desdemona right before he kills her. The combination of tenderness, ruthlessness, and regret is truly overwhelming, in a disturbingly beautiful sort of way.


1. The word “newfangled.”

Keanu at home in the Matrix having downloaded the appropriate software: "I know Hamlet."

Keanu, having downloaded the appropriate software: "I know Hamlet."

2. Allowing the world to see Joe Fiennes as Shakespeare, semi-naked, with ink-stained hands.

3. Allowing any semi-literate actor to become more famous by stomping and roaring their way through text they don’t understand (yes, Keanu, I’m talking to you!!).

Does Shakespeare compete with the Bible as a spiritual wellspring?

Unfortunately, those seeking spiritual solace tend, with both the Bible and Shakespeare, to extract pithy snippets completely from their contexts, thus altering their intended meaning for their own purposes. For example, everyone’s favorite, “To thine own self be true,” is uttered by a rather doddering old fool as part of an extremely long and contradictory list of platitudes to a rather impatient young man trying to be on his way.

Similarly, people love to remind us that “The quality of mercy is not strained” but fail to remember (or ever learn to begin with) that Portia utters this phrase at the beginning of a speech which is successfully designed to ruthlessly strip Shylock of every penny and social capital he has left. The irony of state-sanctioned, racially motivated abuse being wrapped in the rhetoric of mercy is excruciating.

I would like to suggest as new options for the spiritual edification of the world, the following phrases, divorced of context and explanation, from the works of William Shakespeare:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.”

“Put out the light, and then put out the light.”


“O thou thing!”

“Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

“You whoreson cur!”

“Alack, alack, alack!”

“He teaches boys the hornbook.”

# # #

** As I prepare to post Colleen’s interview, Bookphilia may have given up the ghost. I say “may” because, although the site is currently unavailable, I have a sneaking suspicion that Colleen will roll back the stone and resurrect it. At least that’s my fervent hope.

Life of Why

November 15, 2009
If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how. —Nietzsche

I often detect a subtle elitism among passionate booklovers. I mean, we want our books to be good, really good. But we also want our readers, our good readers, to occupy certain stations in life, you know, novelists, teachers, professors, academics, and critics. They’re the protectors of the literary flame. Not bloggers. And certainly not nurses or lowly technologists. Right? Well, I sincerely hope not. Which is why I always thrill at conversations with people whose livelihoods take place outside of bookish cloisters and academic santuaries, but who still know something about well-plotted novels and well-drawn characters, and who are also intimately acquainted with the shallow breathing and rapid heart rate that attend heated disputes over even minor points of interpretation.


Donna Fedor, a technologist who loves Austen and Shakespeare

Who are you?

I am an enthusiastic, glass-is-overflowing, love-to-laugh optimist; a technology-loving strategist with an inquiring mind for the fundamentals of science, nature and human behavior; an appreciator of simple beauty; and a recovering control-freak exacerbated by my ex-New Yorker tendencies. But, most of all, I am a loyal, loving and honest-to-a-fault wife, sister, daughter, and friend.

When it comes to books, what are your intellectual interests?


Over temporal-spatial vortices Donna hovers

Well, I am a bit of a geek, not a practical “fix my computer” geek but a conceptual “time-space continuum” geek. The fundamental “whys” of the universe and of humanity. The yin/yang of life. The struggle between good/evil. How we struggle to define good and evil. The choices we make as humans that challenge our beliefs in fundamental ways…. and the translation of those choices into how we live our lives. What drives our beliefs and the principles that guide us about love, power, knowledge, success, money, kindness, god… and life. Understanding why people believe what they believe is even more telling than what they believe. How open to changes are we? How set in stone are our beliefs? Basically, getting to the core of existence whether it’s science or human beings.

What books are you eager to read next?

Books are always piled up around my house… kitchen nook, bedside table, all over the office. For some reason, the bedside stack contains the too-tedious Dicken’s Bleak House… I keep falling asleep after only a few pages! I just finished handmaidstaleA Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (for a book club) about a writer growing up in Israel as it is becoming a nation and The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood… perfectly scary and frankly believable. I’m just starting The Political Mind by George Lakoff , a fascinating look at using cognitive and neuroscience to understand reason versus emotion in political change; and the classic The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; and a few books mentioned on this blog (Herzog, Rushdie, Coetzee, Crowley). To satisfy the scientist in me, a whole slew of science books are lying around the house for when I have quick bites of time to indulge; A Guide to the Elements by Albert Stwertka, On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, and Genetics Demystified by Edward Willett.

whyWhat books shaped the “whys” of your existence?

Even with my terrible memory, there are definitely a few books that altered how I think about the world. When I as little. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis started my love for lion-witch-wardrobefantasy, the time-space continuum and the ever present battle of good/evil… which was continued by The Lord of the Rings series, leaving me awe-struck by the world of J.R.R.Tolkien. Since I wanted to be an architect, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand struck a definite chord and expanded my pliable teenage psyche towards individual responsibility, which continues to this day. And last, there was that one high school teacher, Mr. Speight, who taught AP Modern Novels every morning at 8:00 a.m., greeting us with a hilarious stand-up routine mixed with a discussion about the whys of life as told through the authors… my first real experience in being pushed to question my beliefs. I will never forget him and how valued he made us all feel.

Are there any books you routinely recommend?

nine-parts-of-desire-the-hidden-world-of-islamic-womenBooks are so personal. What I find touching, moving, life-altering or even just plain hysterical, usually doesn’t translate wholly to someone else. Although I try not to make recommendations, there are a few I’ve bought for people over the years. The Source by James Michener, which tells of historical and present (1960) cultural and religious struggles at an architectural dig site in Israel through a series of uncovered artifacts and an ancestral storyline; two books by the wonderful journalist, turned writer, Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire and March; and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. And then there are books that are so beautifully written that they take your breath away when you least expect it, not like someone suddenly shoving your head into a ice cold bucket of water, more like taking a deepgilead1 inhale on the first page, continuing dizzily, not exhaling until you are forced to rise and put the book down… remembering that you have another life, fuzzy as it seems. Two that come to mind are The Discovery of Light by J.P. Smith and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.


November 1, 2009


Ends up that running a weekly feature takes time and effort. It’s well worth it, of course, but I need a break — and help. From you. The search for insight and understanding in unlikely places takes the most time. So if you know anyone, including yourself, who is passionate about books and eager to celebrate sentences, characters, novels, authors, and literary experience in general, tell them, urge them, command them to contact me at jkneilson@yahoo.com. We’re all evangelists in a worthy cause. Speak up, for crying out loud. Thank you, and long live Sancho Panza!

Home, a book recommendation

By Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, Home is a story about Jack Boughton’s return to Gilead, Iowa after a 20-year absence. His father Robert Boughton is a dying widower who is cared for by Jack’s 38-year old sister Glory homeBoughton. Through her eyes, through her hopes, sorrows, and disappointments, the story of Jack’s homecoming is told. A lost and scoundrel soul, Jack returns to Gilead with a carefully guarded plan to set his life aright. His stay is fraught with anxiety and tenderness, vulnerability and hope — always hope, especially by those who love him most and can be profoundly hurt by him. Countless scenes are so deeply moving that one stops in sheer amazement, as when Robert Boughton, eager to spend time with Glory, falls asleep at the table with his fork in hand, or when Jack gracefully plays the piano for his father’s enjoyment. Robinson is a master at evoking the reader’s deepest layers of experience, as well as making the presence of the past (excuse the expression) palpable in such everyday objects as shirts and lampshades. Home is a marvel, a gorgeous achievement, and is well worth your time. Savor Gilead first, otherwise a rich dimension of meaning will be lost, or as Robinson unforgettably writes in Gilead, you will miss “the great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”

Did you know?

Friends and family celebrating my achievement

Friends and family celebrating a fine achievement

Between the Lines averages about 350 visits per week. While this is nothing to sniff at, your kindly host is greedy as Gekko and wants more, a lot more, so please share the blog with anyone and everyone. Even better, list me on your blogroll (Mark Sarvas, chop, chop!), and who knows, I just might return the favor.

WordPress site metrics allows me to track search terms used by incoming traffic. Little did I know that when I captioned an image thusly, “Zaniest threesome ever,” I unwittingly spun a web to snag this tasty little morsel, “how to prepare wife for a threesome,” which is funny because it’s funny but vexing, too, because it’s hardly the kind of traffic I so richly deserve. Or is it?

Joyce Carol Oates and Harold Bloom politely declined to go Between the Lines. Don DeLillo, not so much. But in his defense, I did mis-spell his name with a lowercase “l.” Accidents happen.

Spooning one's constituency

Spooning the City electorate

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom still hasn’t responded to me. Which is commendable in a way, because he’s got more important things to do than to discuss ideas.

On the Horizon

Next feature will cross Monday, November 16.

David Mitchell’s feature will go live on Monday, December 14 at 12:01 a.m. To prepare, read Cloud Atlas, a wonderfully inventive novel, which was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize. If you fear it’s too large an undertaking, shame on you, but somewhat pardonable, so read Black Swan Green instead.