Merlyn on Learning

The last time I met with students face-to-face this year was March 13. It was a regular teaching day, but as I talked with my first-year students about the differences between periodical and scholarly articles, I was receiving email after email on my phone as the world shut down. By Sunday evening of that weekend, the government had announced the suspension of face-to-face classes throughout the province. The term ended in an online scramble that had instructors and students alike learning new ways to learn. COVID 19 may have altered the way universities deliver content—perhaps permanently—but there’s a constant here people need to bear in mind: university is about teaching, but even more it’s about learning.
When in doubt, ask a favourite character. When it comes to learning, I turn to Merlyn from T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. Here’s what Merlyn says to the Wart about learning:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”
(White, T. H. “Chapter XXI.” The Sword in the Stone.)
In the last couple of months I took this advice to heart in various ways. I found a book that I’d put off reading and dived in, Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara. This is a short book outlining the history of the dinosaurs. Lacovara explains where dinosaurs sit on the tree of life, and he describes in detail his discovery of the dreadnoughtus during a dig in Patagonia. It’s estimated the dreadnoughtus measured twenty-six metres in length and weighed more than eight male elephants, or more than a Boeing 737.
Lacovara offers a vivid and compelling discussion of dinosaurs and why their lives and eventual extinction remain relevant today. For one, you can see and hear the descendants of dinosaurs every time you take a walk outside. They feed from your bird-feeders and fly overhead. These avian dinosaurs are what remained following the chicxulub impactor, the asteroid strike that caused the last major extinction event, 66 million years ago. This giant space rock hit the Yucatan Peninsula, creating a crater more than a hundred miles across and twelve miles deep—forever altering the global climate and changing the course of evolution.

A photo taken at the Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller.

The best way to experience dinosaurs is close up—close up in a museum, such as the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. Always a fascinating place to visit. But if you can’t get there, you can visit online.
Merlyn is a hands-on teacher, but I think even he would have approved the use of the internet to continue learning in a global pandemic. COVID 19 has changed the way we interact, how we work, how we live our lives. But we need to continue learning. And when you need a break from the screen, make sure and get out for a walk. The natural world is the best teacher—it’s always ready to show us something amazing,, and it never tires of doing so.

New Fiction, “The Book Finder”

For me, walking into a book store is an odd experience. I’m in a room full of books and I can’t red any of them. Books and reading is where I live—where I have lived for most of my life, but as a blind person, access to print books has always been an issue.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like walking through book stores. I will visit with a friend—always feeling a strange expectancy as whomever I’m with reds titles and backs of books. If I buy, I mostly buy for other people. But my world of books is audio and digital, not print.
I’ve always been able to find books to read, books that take me into worlds I haven’t yet imagined, but many of my most memorable reads have come from other people—teachers, friends, and relatives. I always pay attention when someone tells me about a book. It might be something I’ve already read, but often not. And you never know how a book is going to alter the way you see the world—whether that’s a biography of Charles Darwin, a hefty Dickens novel, or a book about little people who live in holes in the ground. Every book is both mirror and lens—it shows you something of yourself while enabling you to see the world in new and interesting ways.
All of this thinking went into a story I wrote last year called “The Book Finder.” It’s a story about a mysterious woman who works in a bookstore. People talk about her, but no one seems to be able to find her by looking. If you ask at the bookstore, they will invariably shake their heads and send you to the reference desk.
Here’s the opening from “The Book Finder”:

You couldn’t always find her. If you went looking for her, you would never find her—that’s what some people said. You just had to be in the store—by accident, by chance, or just because.
Most people who claimed to have met her didn’t remember her clearly. They would frown, trying to recall.
“I was in there … a Tuesday, I think,” they would say, vaguely. “But I didn’t know what I was looking for. Then she came over and just started asking me what I liked to read. I told her … and she handed me a book.”
The stories went like that. Some said it was an older woman—one was convinced it was a man. But most said it was a girl, or a young woman, smiling, inquiring, and asking what you liked to read.
And maybe that was it. You couldn’t go into the little shop intentionally. You couldn’t walk in and ask for her. If you did, the person behind the counter would say something vague in response: ”Oh, you must mean Sarah (or Sally, or Jane). She’s not here today, but if you go to the reference desk, someone can help you.”

I want to thank the editors of The Evening Street Review for publishing “The Book Finder” in their summer, 2020 issue. You can purchase a copy of the journal at the following address:
The Evening Street Review.
The summer issue is loaded with poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. Remember, purchasing a copy of the magazine helps such journals to continue bringing us stories that will live with us for years to come, and perhaps, even change the way we see the world.

On Writing Memoir, Part 4, Reading

This is the fourth in my series on memoir. We are three weeks in to the COVID19 pandemic, so I, like many people, am finding more time to read and think, in spite of the term still grinding on like a virtual glacier. I haven’t found working from home any hardship either—until yesterday, the last day of March, when winter decided to return to Edmonton. So it’s back to more layers while spring decides to hurry up and arrive.

For this fourth in my series, I’m turning to my blog. After I lost my sight in 1974, I started reading in a different way. I began listening to recorded books, and my internal landscape changed radically.
I’m including several links here, all of which grew out of my early reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Reading this book was truly formative for me—it introduced story into my life in a different way, and it gave me a new way of seeing the world.
I first posted “A Life-Long Adventure” in June of 2014. It describes my early experiences of reading Tolkien. The second, “In the Company of Hobbits,” first posted in October of 2019, continues the story and describes the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on my teaching life.
“A Visit to Oxford” describes my first visit to Oxford in 2016 with my youngest daughter. This trip was a way for me to explore those places where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked, which felt for me more like a pilgrimage than anything else. And finally, “A Hobbit Odyssey,” first posted in September of 2019, describes a trip with my eldest daughter, driving down New Zealand’s north island and checking out all the locations dedicated to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of Lord of the Rings. I’m very lucky to have such indulgent daughters, both of whom have listened to my stories over the years, and both of whom have helped me to explore this part of my life in interesting ways.

Adventures with Alice

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)

The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.

So Long to Summer

The summer is coming to an end, and there are always things in my world to tell me fall is coming. The school year is now a week away, and everyone is gearing up. September and the beginning of the year has dictated my life for more than thirty years, and here it comes again.
I try to use these points in the year to reflect and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. I use the summer to read books I don’t normally read during the term, although this summer I’ve been rereading more than usual.
I started the summer with the Percy Jackson books—always a fun read—and I spent part of July rereading the Lockwood and Co. series. I returned to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but did that because I’m teaching The Golden Compass this fall, and I want to move onto Pullman’s next series, The Book of Dust. I read M. K. Humes’s The Merlin Prophecy series, and I returned to a favourite author, Bernard Cornwell, to read The War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series.
Some people never reread books, but I do it all the time. The summer can often be hard for me—I tend to get depressed. It’s as though I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse. This has to do with the accident that took my sight, which happened in the middle of August in 1974. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken to writing memoir. Writing about that event in my life has helped me to, in part, reframe it—to rewrite the story of what happened. Earlier this year, “Running Blind” appeared in The Real Story, and “Fractured” should appear this fall. Both of these pieces attempt to talk about the adjustment I had to make as an eleven-year-old who lost his sight. I have two other pieces in circulation, “My Cowboy Cousin” and “Standing by My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016.” Both these pieces talk about the death of my cousin Graham in the same accident that took my sight.
My other big challenge this summer was writing two academic articles, one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on C. S. Lewis. Academic writing has always been far more difficult for me than any other kind of writing. It’s just hard. I’ve also had something of a block for nearly three years. Faced with these commitments, I had to find a different way to write academically. I took the advice of my therapist. She always tells me that if things become overwhelming, then break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. If, for example, your anxiety is so crippling that it prevents you from getting through your day, then take one piece at a time—have a shower and get ready to leave the house, then celebrate the accomplishment. By the way, this method has been invaluable to me over the years.
That’s what I did. I took the stuff I had written about Anne, and I broke it down into short sections. Some were only two or three-hundred words. I relied on my hard-won sense of discipline to get me started, and I worked on these various bits until I could start assembling them into a larger whole. It worked. I ended up with an eight-thousand-word chapter, which I submitted in August.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling badly about those things I couldn’t manage and those things I couldn’t complete. My sense of guilt as a result has helped prevent me from doing other things I’ve wanted to try. I’m learning, slowly, that the energy required to feel badly, regretful, or guilty is energy that could be spent in learning something new or to undo old habits. Think of it as rewriting the story. You don’t want the story to end with the hero wandering forever in the wilderness—what sort of ending is that? Better to have her find her way back home, or, better yet, find a new home. Either way, such endings allow you to close off those old stories and begin anew.

Summer Reading: The Definitive YA List

Summer is a time for reading—not to mention rereading. I’ve met readers who don’t reread books—they are of a different species than me. I love rereading my favourites.
In July I revisited the Lockwood and Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. These books—five in total—feature Lucy Carlyle, an agent with Lockwood and Co, who narrates her adventures in an alternative London, where the nightly appearance of ghosts and dangerous visitors has become the “Problem.” Only children and teens can see ghosts, so they are the ones to battle the Problem.
Jonathan Stroud has more skill as a writer than many current young adult writers, including such big names as J. K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Sarah J. Maas. His prose is careful, Well-paced, and lively. The Lockwood books also scared the daylights out of me the first time I read them—and I don’t like reading scary books. I’ve read the series now four times.
If you are looking for a young adult read this summer, Book Riot has what seems the definitive list for summer, 2019. Check it out; you are bound to find something you will fall in love with. And if you are one of those who loves to revisit old friends, then enjoy your favourites, but check out the list, anyway. Happy reading!