30 August 2009

reading whatever you want and like

Six years ago, my bookclub read the new translation in verse of Dante's Inferno by Robert Pinsky. At about the same time, the Mary Ryan Gallery held an exhibition of Michael Mazur's illustrations for the Inferno. The installation was spectacular with the etchings on the wall and the text on slanted reading shelves in front of the illustrations. Mazur died on August 18th at age 73. In his obituary published today, the last couple paragraphs were especially interesting to me:

"Although deadly serious as an artist, Mr. Mazur had a sly wit. In 1984 he wrote an article for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times proposing a W.P.A.-style project under which artists could decorate nuclear warheads, just as Renaissance artists embellished armor and weapons.

'It is not hard to imagine the vivid colors, bas reliefs, even graffiti, that would make spectacles of beauty of those dull cones,' he wrote. In time, he suggested, the warheads would find their way into private collections and museums, thereby ending the possibility that they might be deployed."

Always the pacifist and trying to be always the optimist.

In the Arts & Leisure section today, there's an article about upcoming shows of Sandow Birk's "Personal meditations" on the Koran at galleries in California. They look very interesting. In 2006, Birk was working on a film, using puppets, that used Dante's Inferno as its inspiration. That was just about the time of the attacks on the Danish cartoons that included what were seen as disrespectful representations of Muhammad. The Inferno bits disappeared from that film but Birk's project on the Koran has reached the point that it can be shared with all of us. If it promotes understanding of religious and cultural difference, that will be great.

Also in today's Times was an article about English teachers who are assigning students to read what they'd like to read rather than particular books. You can read the article for the full story but your reading is related to your age and predilection, intellectual and physical. I haven't re-read To kill a mockingbird since it was assigned many years ago but I'm sure I would react to it differently now. One of the other books they mention in the article is Moby-Dick which I don't think I read until a few years ago, another bookclub selection. I really enjoyed it and even read another Melville novel (Redburn) not long after. Reading them recently, as an openly gay man rather than a repressed teen or twenties year old, was wonderful. I could react to the bits of potential homosexual or homosocial as an adult. I don't think I would have gotten nearly as much out of them as a kid. Same with the Inferno. It's just too bad that there's so much to read. Well, no, it's great that there's so much to read. If the teachers letting the kids select their reading encourages them to read and find joy and knowledge there, it will be far more important than the loss of collective memory. Teachers can certainly compensate for the varied readings and the students may even find each other's discussions of their reading more illuminating and inspiring than discussion of common reading. We can hope, can't we?

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